It’s been a roller coaster unlike any other this season in Cleveland. In a way, it’s quite simple: LeBron James spurned Miami for his hometown and brought his fifth straight Finals appearance as a homecoming gift. In reality, it’s been LeBron’s wildest season yet.
The Cavaliers on opening night didn’t have enough depth to go the distance in the playoffs. Anderson Varejao ruptured his Achilles tendon, leaving power forwards Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love as the only big men. A rare prolonged absence from James magnified Cleveland’s lack of a competitive roster to surround him with.
Dion Waiters was mercifully shipped off and the Cavs somehow ended a flurry of trades with Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov. Suddenly, Cleveland had two competent wing players to play with LeBron and a legitimate rim-protecting seven-foot center. The Cavaliers peaked after that trade and looked every bit as dangerous as Golden State.
Of course, Love and Kyrie Irving suffered the most untimely of injuries and Cleveland has scrapped the plan and adapted everything on the fly. Amazingly, they’ve only lost four playoff games; but now the issue of depth may be reaching a breaking point.
Matthew Dellavedova has averaged 38 minutes in Irving’s absence in these Finals after playing under 21 per game in 67 regular-season games. In Game 3 he was crucial with 20 points, four assists and five rebounds on 7/17 shooting. However, he left the arena on a stretcher, exceedingly dehydrated. The undrafted Australian guard spent the next day in the hospital, refueling.
He gutted out 33 minutes the following night but couldn’t hit anything, missing 11 of 14 shots in the series’ first blowout. Two days rest should help greatly, but Delly’s active, irritating style is difficult to maintain for 35 to 40 minutes against the Warriors. The Cavs just don’t have another playable point guard on the roster besides their super swiss army knife, LeBron.
Many people perhaps would’ve believed James Jones had retired before seeing him emerge once again in these playoffs. He averaged only 7.9 minutes over 58 games his last two seasons in Miami. He was a nonfactor in each postseason since 2011.
The ever-evolving Cavs used Jones a bit more this year, as he notched 11.7 minutes per game over 57 games. Amazingly, he’s averaged 18.5 minutes while playing each game in Cleveland’s series against Atlanta and now Golden State.
With Love out and Irving on and off then out for good, the Cavs have leaned on Jones’s sharpshooting presence off the bench in smaller lineups. In Cleveland’s two wins in the Finals, Jones scored eight and seven points on 4/6 from deep. In each of their two losses, he’s gone scoreless and missed his only three-point attempt.
The Warriors aren’t afraid of anything inside the three-point line from Jones and are adjusting to suffocate any open looks. In the last possession before the half of Game 3, Jones had Festus Ezeli covering him at the three-point line. Jeff Van Gundy disapprovingly noted that the Warriors had to make a switch immediately. Seconds later, Jones fired off a lightning quick three before Ezeli could contest and the Cavs turned their halftime lead into seven.
Golden State won’t let that happen again; Ezeli and Andrew Bogut played a combined three minutes in their 21-point Game 4 win. With the Warriors going small for basically all 48 minutes, the Cavaliers desperately need production out of lineups that don’t include both Mozgov and Thompson. They know they can’t count on Jones; they simply have to.
Mike Miller has played 11 meaningful minutes in the series and figures to see some more going forward. The Cavaliers at least have to try. He hasn’t found any sort of rhythm all season or playoffs and David Blatt’s decision to start him in Game 1 against Chicago may have lost that game for them.
When the Cavs signed Miller and Jones, most people laughed and made easy jokes about LeBron’s entourage joining him in Cleveland. There was merit to those cracks then, but no one expected the two longtime veterans to play a legitimate role in the 2015 Finals.
A bit more was expected out of Shawn Marion. He played over 30 minutes a game his last three seasons in Dallas and figured to be a key defensive cog for Cleveland. He never found his role this season and struggled to keep nagging injuries at bay.
The 15-year veteran is set to retire after the Finals and is openly itching for an opportunity. He may finally be getting one. The Cavaliers need all the warm bodies they have right now, but it’s worth questioning Marion’s value offensively. Golden State will ignore him completely, so the Matrix will have to make them pay with constant off-ball cuts and offensive rebounds to make any kind of positive impact.
It goes without saying that Cleveland needs LeBron to continue posting mind-blowing near-complete game masterpieces. Steve Kerr, the Warriors coaching staff and the players themselves are brilliant though, and one Cavalier–even the King–simply cannot bring Cleveland its precious by himself. Every possession counts, and the Cavs desperately need production out of their elderly bench. Will they get enough?