By Tom Withers | Associated Press
CLEVELAND -- Although faint, the Cavaliers have a playoff pulse. And it's getting stronger.
Seemingly without hope weeks ago, along with other sub-.500 teams in the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers still have some life left in them despite key injuries and internal upheaval.
With seven games left and a favorable schedule, Cleveland is in the mix to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010, when LeBron James was in his final year wearing wine and gold.
It's been a remarkable turnaround for the Cavs (30-45), who hit their low point Feb. 5 with a 119-108 loss to a Los Angeles Lakers team that finished their victory with five players.
"We just kind of stayed the course," coach Mike Brown explained Sunday after the Cavs won a physical matchup with Indiana to pull within 21⁄2 games of Atlanta for the East's eighth playoff spot. "Our guys just keep fighting."
The Cavs have won four of five to climb back within reach of the Hawks, who have lost six straight.
Cleveland plays at Orlando on Wednesday before visiting Atlanta on Friday, a game that could determine whether they have anything to play for in the final five games.
They'll need help from others, but the Cavs can keep the pressure on Atlanta -- and the New York Knicks, who are between them and the Hawks -- by continuing to win.
"We're still coming out with that never-say-die mentality and attitude and we're just fighting as long as there's season left," said guard Jarrett Jack, who has been instrumental in Cleveland's recent rise. "We're going to keep clawing at it. I think what was best for us, I know me personally, I stopped looking at the standings and just started focusing on what was in this locker room.
"Once we did that, it seemed like the brand of basketball we were playing became more consistent and we gave ourselves an opportunity to be in the situation we're in now."
On Monday, the Cavs learned that All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving may be back on the floor for their final playoff push. Irving was cleared to resume full-contact practice after missing eight games with a strained left biceps tendon. The team did not say if he'll play against the Magic, but the Cavs were bracing for the possibility Irving's season could be over if he had not improved.
Irving's return, though, was tempered by the results of an MRI on forward Anderson Varejao's shoulder. Varejao, the club's leading rebounder, sustained a sprained shoulder joint on Sunday. He will miss Wednesday's game and probably a few more.
It's the latest medical setback for Varejao, who missed 15 games earlier this season with a sore back and has been limited to just 81 games over the previous three seasons by a variety of injuries.
That's how it's been for Cleveland all season -- ups and downs, good and bad.
One game they outmuscle the powerful Pacers; the next they fall flat on their faces.
But recently, they've come together with Jack and second-year guard Dion Waiters leading the way in the absence of Irving, the club's best player and one of the league's rising stars.
"We're getting used to each other, that's been the key," said forward Luol Deng, acquired in an early January trade from Chicago. "We're starting to use our strengths, using what each player can do. Our defense has been great. It's just us maturing as a team. We just need to win. Nothing else matters. It's not going to be perfect and we're starting to play for the win, not think about anything else."
The Cavs have gone 14-12 since Feb. 6, when general manager Chris Grant was fired by owner Dan Gilbert, who at the time said "I take responsibility for where we're at."
Brown has managed to keep his young team working toward a goal despite the absence of Irving and Varejao, who missed 15 games with a sore back, for extended periods.
The addition of center Spencer Hawes has opened the floor and given Cleveland's offense more options, but Deng said the bottom line for the Cavs has been stringing wins together.
"Winning really makes you believe in each other," he said. "Guys are starting to realize that they can do it. There's no magic to it. It's really playing together and believing in each other, and I really think once we won a few in a row, we started to play better."
During Sunday's win, the Cavs matched the Pacers push for push, shove for shove.
At one point in the fourth quarter, Hawes came to the rescue of scrappy rookie guard Matthew Dellavedova, who was floored by an elbow from Indiana forward David West. Hawes stood up for the pesky and popular "Delly," a feisty Australian who perhaps best embodies the Cavs' grit.
Hawes will likely draw a fine by the league, but he got a reward from Dellavedova.
"I'll give him some Tim Tams to make up for it," Dellavedova said, referring to the chocolate dessert biscuits from Down Under.
If the Cavs can keep winning, they could be in line for something sweeter -- the playoffs.