For all the fuss over Brad Stevens, a good portion of which was deserved (LeBron James' usage was up, and his player efficiency rating was down), the Cleveland Cavaliers rolled through the first round of the playoffs. The Cavs did not drop a game, of course, and only the Washington Wizards are doing better than the 13 points per 100 possessions the Cavs outscored the Celtics by.
It was something approaching a dominating performance by a team that has been peaking since mid-January. Of course, everything changed Sunday afternoon. Kevin Love is likely done for the season, and J.R. Smith lost his composure. As a result the Cavs have lost his services for their next two games. As the Cavaliers took off after January 15th, Love and Smith were combining to average 13 three point attempts per game. To put that in context, the Minnesota Timberwolves as a team didn't average 15 three point attempts per game in the regular season.
So the Cavs lose an incredible amount of shooting. And it isn't just shooting that Kevin Love provides. He's a supremely gifted offensive force, one of the best rebounders in basketball, and isn't a total loss on defense. He can body up in the post. He is probably the Cavs' second best passer after LeBron James. He's a jack-of-all-trades on the offensive end, and it's been invaluable for Cleveland. I don't want to sugarcoat the loss. Few have defended the trade for Love, or Love's play, as consistently as I have.
But the Cavs are going to get Smith back. And the Cavs do employ LeBron James, looking to reach his fifth straight NBA Finals. He's won two of them. He's won a few Most Valuable Player Awards. His best position may be power forward, and in Love's absence, he will spend a lot of time there. James will have to ramp it up, but he likely knows this. He's played less minutes this season than any other than the lockout shortened season in which he won his first title. He missed thirteen games, a career high, and needed just four to advance past the first round. He's said before that it's gearing up for games, moreso than minutes, that really wears on him.
The odometer keeps ticking higher for James, but the Cavs haven't pushed him too hard. He should be ready to put the team on his back. LeBron James is not packing it in. He's 30 years old, he has limited opportunities to add rings to his legacy. If the Kevin Love injury shows how fragile title hopes can be, they also point to the urgency of making the most of opportunities. I wouldn't expect James to accept that the window for this year has closed completely.
He will be helped by Kyrie Irving, coming off an extremely impressive debut playoff performance. All Irving did in the first four games of the playoffs is compile a true shooting rate of 57.8. His excellent player efficiency rating of 21.7 on a modest usage of just 23.8%, per basketball-reference.com, suggests a player who didn't press or force the issue. The Cavs made defensive adjustments after game two of the Celtics series, and Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas, players Irving spent a lot of time guarding, weren't particularly effective.
Irving did it all with a banged up hip. He did it while being guarded by Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, talented defenders that provide different challenges. Losing a player of Love's caliber hurts your offense; it can't be helped. But a team with offensive talents of Irving and James' stature is surely more capable of withstanding the blow.
The Cavs are not the deepest team, even with Love and Smith available. They're going to be stretched thin moving forward. But they have young guys capable of absorbing bigger minutes. Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson are young and have spent time as starters in the league. Both can guard multiple positions with some capability and can avoid foul trouble.
If you were a shorthanded coach looking for stopgaps off the bench, you could do a lot worse than these two. Even if one or both move into the starting lineup or struggle as the competition ticks up, they'll still play the majority of their minutes with superstar LeBron James. There's that chance Irving plays like one as well.
Timofey Mozgov and Thompson might be the only traditional bigs the Cavs can feel comfortable playing moving forward, but they do different things and can be mixed and matched. Neither are offensive minuses, particularly with the creating ability of James and Irving. The Cavaliers have blitzed defenses across the league with Irving and James as the primary ballhandler on pick and rolls, with Thompson and Mozgov rolling. With James Jones, Mike Miller, Matthew Dellavedova and the return of Smith, you can still surround those pairings with shooting.
The ability to score at a high rate shouldn't dissipate.
James, as mentioned above, can play power forward, and you can squeeze some minutes out of Shawn Marion, Jones and even Miller at that position if you really need to. Again, imperfect options, but there's versatility built into the roster.
Let's not forget David Blatt. He has a full week to get the team ready for life without Love. He is still the coach with offensive sets that Mike Miller, not known for hyperbole, labeled "border-line genius." He's shown a willingness to play small both in the United States and during his long and successful career abroad. Given the Cavs' serious depth issues in the frontcourt sans Love, an open-minded coach like Blatt is a real asset.
He's also given a new motivating tool. With James, Cleveland will never be your stereotypical underdog. But the intense pressure to win has faded just a bit. The players in the locker room might feel a little vulnerable, a little bit of doubt as to whether or not title hope is real. Blatt can sell the team on his vision. Lost in the obsession over James and Love's relationship, over the last couple months, has been the one between James and Blatt.
They'll need each other, now.
The Cavs aren't the favorites anymore. I'm not here to argue that. But Vegas hasn't exactly given up on the Cavs.
According to Bovada sports book, CLE still has the 2nd best odds to win it all (12/5) even with Love out. GSW 1st (8/5), SAS 3rd (13/2)— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) April 28, 2015
The Western Conference will churn out a fantastic contender. It's likely that the Bulls, Hawks or Wizards would provide a tough test for the Cavs. Nothing is guaranteed, and things just got a lot harder. But the Cavs have pieces to make it work. They have Kyrie Irving. And they have LeBron James.
No excuses. No expectations. Let's have fun.
Stats courtesy of nba.com/stats unless otherwise noted.