I saw on Twitter on Sunday that the Cavaliers are done.
That was the popular opinion in the wake of Kevin Love’s dislocated left shoulder, suffered at the yanking hands of the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk on Sunday.
Love’s injury, which will keep him out of at least the Eastern Conference semifinals, will likely cost the Cavs the chance to win the NBA championship. But they still might be able to take the conference crown.
LeBron James carried the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2007 with a lineup that also featured Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Is the Love-less version of James, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov that far behind?
Love’s value has been vastly underrated by fans this season, but the Cavs still have the best player in the world in James. They still have one of the league’s elite players in Irving. They still have depth, although not as much for the first two games of the next round. J.R. Smith will sit out the first two games of the semifinals after being suspended by the league for hitting Celtics forward Jae Crowder in the face. (I will concede that the thought of Mike Miller and Joe Harris playing against the Chicago Bulls qualifies as cringe-worthy.)
The crux of the matter going forward without Love is twofold.
It is now time for coach David Blatt to prove he’s more than what most think he is — a rookie NBA coach.
Without Love, and Smith for the short term, rotations will have to be changed, strategies revised, roles for little-used players devised. Blatt must find a way to make up for Love’s 14.3 points and seven rebounds per game in the postseason. (So much for those Love outlet passes I’ve admired, at least for the next series.) When it comes to in-game decision-making, there will be little margin for error.
But more importantly, the Cavs now face real adversity. How they respond will determine how far they will go.
For months, Blatt and the Cavs have talked about what they’ve been through. The 19-20 start. Anderson Varejao’s torn Achilles. Questions about Blatt’s future. Crucial January trades. Endless speculation that turned into a national obsession about James’ relationship with Love. Bull’s-eyes on their backs every night.
That was much ado about nothing. That wasn’t adversity. Not even Varejao qualifies, considering his injury history. All those are questions to be expected for a team that has James, who plays under the world’s (and ESPN’s) microscope.
Going forward without Love, along with Smith for part of the next series, is adversity. That’s like being down to your third-string quarterback for the Big Ten Championship game without Cardale Jones waiting in the wings.
The Cavs will take their cues on how to respond from James. James knew the leadership role he was assuming when he returned home. Now James must rally his team, understandably down after Sunday’s events despite sweeping the Celtics. James must convince the Cavs there is something to be salvaged, that the big prize is still possible even though it looks like long odds now.
James and Irving can be even more dazzling together than they’ve already shown. They must use all their tricks and wiles like they did in the fourth quarter of Game 2 against the Celtics. They can take their on-court partnership to another level. A partnership like that of John Stockton and Karl Malone needs time to develop and there might not be enough left in this season. But they can become a stronger one-two punch.
Under the mentoring of James, Irving has shown interest in defense and rebounding. He’s engaged in every aspect of the game, although it’s obvious scoring still comes first. Making his career playoff debut, Irving has shown no fear. He must realize that without Love, he can take over, he doesn’t have to defer to James. He must play free and loose, like the Mr. Fourth Quarter we came to know before James returned.
Perhaps another Cavs player can light up the next likely foe, the Bulls. Maybe Iman Shumpert or James Jones or even Matthew Dellavedova can provide the needed boost. Perhaps Miller will shock everyone except for a certain Beacon Journal beat writer and win the Cavs a playoff game or two.
On Sunday, “The Dislocation” was already joining “The Drive,” “The Shot” and “The Fumble” in Cleveland sports lore. Love’s injury was likened to Jim Chones’ broken foot that ended the Cavs’ Miracle of Richfield run. Perhaps that will prove to be the case.
But the Bulls have injury issues of their own. The eighth-seeded Brooklyn Nets defeated the East’s top-seeded Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of their first-round series. The Cavs still have James and Irving. When he returns from his suspension, Smith will be ultra-motivated to make up for his stupid Flagrant-2 blunder.
Contrary to Sunday’s popular sentiment on Twitter, I’m not willing to say the Cavs are done. Perhaps my “In LeBron and Kyrie I trust” sentiment is misguided.
The Cavs must tighten their bonds. They must figure out ways to do more. They must focus on how much sweeter it would be to win a title after real adversity strikes.
A team two hours south of what has been dubbed Believeland can tell them it’s sweet indeed.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.