INDEPENDENCE: With the roster relatively healthy and the Miami Heat only about halfway through this remarkable 23-game winning streak, the Cavaliers had their chance to take down the champs.
Now, however, the Miami militia is marching into a war-torn Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavaliers are bloodied and wounded, wrapped in gauze, packed in slings, facemasks and bandages.
LeBron James is coming home tonight, but it won’t be a fair fight. It never is when the Heat are involved, but the news is only getting worse for the Cavaliers.
Already without Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao, now Dion Waiters will miss at least the next week with loose cartilage in his left knee. Surgery hasn’t been ruled out, but the team wants to first give him a week of rest and treatment. If he still can’t play on it, he’ll have an arthroscopic procedure that will most likely end his rookie season prematurely.
That means the Cavaliers will be without their three top scorers tonight when they face the defending champions and owners of the second-longest winning streak in NBA history.
“Anything can happen,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said. “Just like boxers. James “Buster” Douglas against Mike Tyson. Nobody in the world thought it would happen.”
A Cavs knockout of these champs would register the same type of shock across the NBA landscape.
The Heat haven’t lost since Feb. 1 at Indiana. They’ve had only a few close calls, although the Cavs can take credit for one of them. The Cavs led for much of the fourth quarter in their meeting last month before the Heat took control in the final couple of minutes, took advantage of a couple of defensive breakdowns by the Cavs and escaped with their 11th consecutive victory. The Cavs had both Irving and Waiters that night and still couldn’t topple the champs.
“You almost get to the point you feel you’re invincible, that you can’t lose,” Scott said. “I think that’s where they are right now.”
As for the playoffs, Scott is almost ready to anoint them champions again.
“The way they’re playing right now, it’s going to be tough. But I think there’s a couple teams in the Western Conference who feel they’ve got a pretty good shot,” Scott said. “But right now, the way they’re playing, I don’t know if anyone can beat them, especially in a seven-game series.”
The Cavs are in a stretch of eight contests against playoff teams within 10 games. They lost at San Antonio over the weekend when defensive mistakes late cost them a chance at the upset, then the Indiana Pacers systematically chopped them apart on Monday.
Scott still believes this playoff-type environment is good for his young team, even though they have no hope of playing beyond mid-April. It would be good for guys like Waiters and Irving to experience, but instead Shaun Livingston and Wayne Ellington will be their starting backcourt.
The backup point guard is even blurrier. For now, Ellington and Daniel Gibson will share the role, although neither is a true point guard. Scott conceded Tuesday that the Cavs will have to sign another player, but he stopped short of saying it had to be a point guard.
It’s certainly the position of greatest need, however.
Waiters was averaging 14.7 points, second only to Irving, and shooting 41 percent. In his past 17 games, he was averaging 16 points and shooting 50 percent. He was thriving as both the starting shooting guard and backup point guard. Now all of that could be over.
As for James, anyone expecting him to show any affection toward Cleveland today is probably going to be disappointed. As rumors swirl about his possible return in 2014, James certainly isn’t going to do or say anything to disrupt the momentum of the Heat’s historic streak. He is playing the best basketball of his career, and Scott conceded that he has already won the league’s Most Valuable Player trophy without even playing the season’s final month.
“When you win a championship, he had a lot of pressure on him to win it,” Daniel Gibson said. “Now he’s just out there playing free. He’s playing at a very high clip.”
Gibson and Varejao are the only two holdovers from the James era in Cleveland. Gibson admits that he isn’t as close as he once was with James, but the two still chat occasionally.
Tonight will mark James’ fourth appearance at Quicken Loans Arena in a Heat uniform. The vitriol has subsided a little with each visit, but Gibson expects the overall theme to be the same as the first three visits.
“Of course it’ll be the same for him,” Gibson said. “They’re not going to like him. And we’ll love it.”
It’s hard to imagine, however, the Cavs will love tonight’s outcome.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.