Sunday’s game against the Boston Celtics was supposed to be quick work for the Cleveland Cavaliers. While elimination games on the road are never easy, the first three games of the series had been relatively comfortable victories for the Cavs, so LeBron James and Co. were hoping that Game 4 would bring more of the same, since another win meant a simple sweep of Boston to get Cleveland into the next round with plenty of time to rest.
Obviously, Game 4 ended up bringing much more than the Cavaliers bargained for, namely a dislocated shoulder injury for Kevin Love. While battling for a rebound during the first quarter, Love got his arms tangled with Kelly Olynyk’s in one of those goofy elbow hooks between big men; only this time, Olynyk pulled on Love’s arm as the two were stumbling around. Love immediately grabbed at his left shoulder and ran to the locker room.
While Cleveland went on to wrap up the series Sunday, Love was unable to return to the game, and on Tuesday, Cavs GM David Griffin said it was “highly unlikely” that the star forward would return for any of the playoffs.
To make matters worse, Sunday’s Game 4 also featured J.R. Smith smacking Jae Crowder across the face, which not only garnered him an immediate ejection but also a two-game suspension. So much for getting out unscathed.
Cleveland will now be missing two starters for the first two games of its second-round series against the Chicago Bulls or Milwaukee Bucks, not exactly ideal for a team that’s light on depth with an already-shortened rotation. But that’s only the immediate issue facing the Cavs, as losing Love will be a huge blow to their championship aspirations, regardless of his struggles throughout his first year in Cleveland.
Because he was the team-carrying, big-shooting rebound machine that his awful Minnesota Timberwolves teams required him to be, Love has been considered a flop in Cleveland by some. It’s true that his numbers this season (16.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game) are down from his career averages, and it’s also true that Cavs head coach David Blatt hasn’t always utilized Love correctly, preferring him in a spot-up shooter role as opposed to utilizing him as a more dynamic stretch 4. That doesn’t mean Love wasn’t crucial to this offense, however.
For one thing, the Cavs don’t really have the personnel to replace Love’s production, even from a quantity perspective. Cleveland essentially plays only three big men in its frontcourt rotation, with LeBron and James Jones basically cohabiting the power-forward spots in a lineup without two of Love, Timofey Mozgov or Tristan Thompson. Now, the Cavs are down one of those three big guys, meaning more minutes for LeBron at power forward and more minutes for the likes of Kendrick Perkins or Shawn Marion in general. Their lineups will be more one-dimensional now, either “big” or “small” without Love to give them that unique hybrid element of a big, mobile power forward who could beat you in multiple ways. In theory, this will make Cleveland easier to guard–not ideal for the playoffs.
Between James and Kyrie Irving, this team should still be able to score the ball, but it will certainly be more difficult. As the best three-point shooting power forward in the league, Love provided the Cavs’ offense with a big-time floor spacer, but he was also a canny offensive rebounder, and his outlet passes often catalyzed Cleveland’s fastbreaks. During the first few games of the playoffs, his role was increased even more, as James had taken it upon himself to get Love more involved in the offense, and it had been a success, as Love had begun to do both the little and the big things for this offense, like his pair of fourth-quarter three-pointers in Game 3.
Losing a talent like Love never makes things easier on an offense. Cleveland’s spacing will be much tighter, and if Blatt chooses to rely on James at power forward, he’ll have to be careful about monitoring the beating that LeBron will take at that position. The Cavs’ wing players like Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and perhaps even the ghosts of Marion and Mike Miller will have to step up if James slides down to the frontcourt, but that means they lose a playmaker on the outside, as this team is obviously thin on the wing as well, especially with Smith’s suspension.
No matter what anyone says, Love had become a good fit for the Cavaliers’ offense, even if it wasn’t a good fit for him. The Cavs had been the league’s most prolific three-point shooting team since Smith and Mozgov joined the team in mid-January, and Love was a huge part of that. He was clearly becoming more comfortable on both ends of the floor, putting many of his bad habits–like transition defense–behind him, and he was playing his best basketball of the season in the first round against the Celtics.
Now, his season is over, perhaps fittingly for how wonky the whole thing was, and Cleveland will miss him dearly against Chicago or Milwaukee. If the Cavs can get past them, they’ll miss him against anyone else they encounter, and they’ll almost certainly not win a championship without him. Combine that potential reality with Love’s impending free agency, and the Cavs might not ever win a championship with Love on their team.
That’s a long way off at this point, though, and both parties got a taste of the long-term success they might be able to enjoy during the first three games against Boston. Now, we get to see if the fourth game will spell disaster for their relationship, or the potential for a championship for Love or Cleveland.