Now that the dust’s settled, we can start picking through the fallout from Sunday’s wild Game 4 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics, which sent the C’s home for the summer and will send the Cavs into the second round without two-fifths of the starting lineup that torched the league over the last three months of the regular season.
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The Cavaliers announced Monday that power forward Kevin Love “will be unavailable for” the entire Eastern Conference semifinals after suffering a dislocated left shoulder midway through the first quarter of Game 4, and that an update on his status beyond that — provided the Cavs make it beyond that, that is — “will be determined over the next several days.”
The NBA later announced that Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith has been suspended for two games for striking Boston’s Jae Crowder in the face during the third quarter of Game 4; that the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk has been suspended for one game for his role in Love’s shoulder dislocation; and that Cleveland center Kendrick Perkins had been fined $15,000 for his illegal screen on and subsequent shove of Crowder during the second quarter. (Perk had initially been assessed a flagrant foul-1. That was upgraded to a flagrant-2 upon further review, leading to the assessment of the fine.)
Let’s start with the biggest-ticket item first. Here’s the first-quarter tangle between Love and Olynyk on which Love sustained his shoulder injury:
Love said after the game that there was “no doubt in [his] mind” that Olynyk purposely locked onto and yanked his arm to prevent him from retrieving a contested rebound, terming it a “bush-league play.” Olynyk later denied intending to injure Love, noting that the Cleveland forward “locked my arm up” first, and that the interior scuffle was the kind of play that happens all the time in NBA games without anything significant coming of it: “If you get tangled up and he doesn’t dislocate his shoulder, there’s nothing dirty ever said or anything. It’s just a foul.”
That’s probably right, but Love did dislocate his shoulder, which is probably why Olynyk’s going to wind up missing the first game of next season. Whether you think it’s odd that Olynyk seemed to receive a punishment based less on his action than on its result, or that he only got one game for making what most observers agree was at the very least not a particularly cool play, likely depends on A) whether or not you’ve got personal experience with getting armbarred in pursuit of a rebound and B) your feelings toward fellas in green-and-white uniforms.
The Cavs’ Monday evening update has more details on Love’s condition:
His shoulder was assessed, reduced in the locker room, immobilized and he did not return to the game. X-rays and a MRI have been performed, as well as further evaluation at Cleveland Clinic Sports Health today by Cavaliers head team physician Dr. Richard D. Parker and Dr. Mark Schickendantz. Evaluation and imaging have defined the extent of the injury: an acute anterior inferior glenohumeral dislocation with the corresponding ligament/labrum tearing and humeral head bone bruising. Currently, Love is undergoing training room treatments while additional opinions are being obtained and treatment options being explored.
That pursuit of opinions and options apparently isn’t expected to get the three-time All-Star back in working order at any point in the next couple of weeks, removing a valuable floor-spacer, rebounder and supplementary playmaker from the high-powered offensive attack that Cleveland rode to 53 wins and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Much was made of Love’s individual decline this year. The former Minnesota Timberwolves superstar’s scoring average dropped by nearly 10 points per game in his first season in Cleveland. He posted the worst full-season shooting percentage and lowest rebounding percentage of his career, and the share of team offensive possessions on which he notched an assist during Year 1 in Cleveland was cut in half from his final season in the Twin Cities.
He seemed frequently to struggle with operating as a third or fourth option, working off the ball on the perimeter and waiting for his chances rather than getting the ball early and often and being counted on to create them himself. This led to year-long questions about fitting in and fitting out, the status of the relationship between Love and LeBron James, and reports that Love’s frustrations with the setup in Cleveland could lead him to opt out of the final year of his current contract to seek opportunities elsewhere in free agency this summer.
A funny thing happened amid all that rancor, though: the Cavs ranked fourth in the NBA in offensive efficiency this season, scoring an average of 107.7 points per 100 possessions, and they were five full points-per-100 better in the 2,500-plus minutes that Love was on the floor (109.5-per-100) than in the 1,400-plus minutes when he wasn’t available (104.5-per-100), according to NBA.com’s stat tool.
Cleveland’s six most frequently used five-man units during the regular season featured Love, with five outscoring the opposition by rates ranging from respectable (+3 points-per-100 for Love-LeBron-Kyrie Irving-Shawn Marion-Anderson Varejao; +3.2-per-100 for Love-Kyrie-Smith-Iman Shumpert-Tristan Thompson) to rampaging (+19.3-per-100 for the Love-LeBron-Kyrie-Smith-Timofey Mozgov starting five, +28.2-per-100 for the small-ball Love-LeBron-Irving-Marion-Thompson lineup).
Even if he himself didn’t always seem comfortable with his role in the offense and wasn’t always confidently stepping into and knocking down the shots he did get, the sheer threat of the 6-foot-10 bomber created more room for James and Irving to operate in the half-court, helping grease the skids for dribble penetration that created all those tasty dump-offs for Mozgov dunks or kickouts for wide-open catch-and-shoot 3-pointers by J.R. His presence mattered, a trend that continued in the postseason, as Cleveland torched the Celtics to the tune of 120.5 points-per-100 with Love on the court in Round 1, compared to just 97.2 points-per-100 when he sat.
No Cleveland group without Love logged more than 75 minutes this season. The one that did — the starting lineup with reserve power forward Thompson in Love’s place &mdash, got outscored by seven points in those 75 minutes, producing points at a top-10-caliber clip (105.7 points-per-100) but hemorrhaging them on the other end (114.5-per-100, leagues below the worst full-season defensive efficiency marks in the NBA this season).
Thompson’s lack of shooting prowess allows opponents to plug the lane, making it more difficult for even excellent board-crashers like he and Mozgov to pull down offensive rebounds, while the lack of space and the removal of another capable playmaker helped create a spike in turnovers and opponents’ points off them. Your standard small-sample-size caveats apply here, but it’s worth noting that there’s a reason why the Love starting lineup got 400 more minutes than this one — it worked better, and made more sense.
Making matters worse, the Cavaliers will also be without Smith, who earned himself a suspension for the second postseason in three years by lashing out during a game his team had in hand at the TD Garden. Here’s his swinging backfist that caught Crowder in the cruller:
Smith said after the game that he was “nervous as hell” he’d be suspended after clocking Crowder, who had barreled down the paint, crashed into Smith and leaned down on Smith’s shoulder blades with his right forearm in a very physical attempt to establish rebounding position. Well, at least now he can stop worrying.
Shortly after news of the suspension broke, Smith expressed his remorse via Instagram:
“Not the player I want to be not the player I want my teammates [and] family to see not the person I want the fans to see but I will be better!” Smith wrote in the caption of his Instagram post. “I must be better as a player [and] as a Person! #TheLand
It’s a sweet sentiment and all, but … well, we’ve been here before, J.R.
Smith’s reputational issues aside, his absence for Games 1 and 2 of the conference semifinals seem to constitute a significant problem for the Cavs in the here and now, because if you thought we were talking about small sample sizes in looking at Cleveland lineups without Love, things get even rougher when you look for Cavs units without Love and Smith.
The most frequently used non-Love-and-Smith groups also featured Matthew Dellavedova, who made 13 starts in place of Irving due to injury. Those units met with mixed results:
• LeBron, Shumpert, Thompson, James Jones, Matthew Dellavedova: 68 total minutes spread over 15 appearances, 101.9 points scored per 100 possessions, 111.8 points allowed per 100, -9.8 net rating
• LeBron, Shumpert, Mozgov, Thompson, Dellavedova: 40 total minutes spread over 11 appearances, 105.8 points scored per 100 possessions, 66.2 points allowed per 100 possessions, +39.6 net rating
• LeBron, Shumpert, Marion, Thompson, Dellavedova: 34 total minutes spread over seven appearances, 108.8 points scored per 100 possessions, 116 points allowed per 100 possessions, -7.2 net rating
The likeliest scenario for head coach David Blatt might be to start out with Thompson in place of Love and Shumpert, fresh off a strong Game 4 performance and sound work throughout the sweep in stalling Boston sparkplug Isaiah Thomas, in place of Smith. Should the matchup bear out that way, Thompson’s activity on the interior could help Mozgov do battle with a burly Chicago Bulls frontcourt. While Shumpert’s nowhere near the knockdown long-distance shooter that Smith’s been over the course of his career, he can hit open 3s in a pinch while offering a more capable perimeter-defending option against the likes of Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler; maybe that trade-off can help mitigate the offensive dropoff for a couple of games.
But those choices could produce undesirable outcomes, too. With no fear of being burned by Thompson’s shooting and less fear of Shumpert than Smith, you’d suspect the Bulls (or, to be fair, the Bucks) would load up even more heavily on Irving’s drives, James’ post-ups and Mozgov’s interior touches, aiming to choke Cleveland’s offense out on the interior. If that proves unsuccessful, Blatt figures to find himself hoping that Jones or mothballed Mike Miller can come back from the fringes of utility just enough to knock down some shots and open up some breathing room for James and Irving to operate without being roasted on the other end.
Failing that, Blatt can flip the switch and slot LeBron in at the four with Shump at the three and Dellavedova alongside Irving in a two-point-guard backcourt, which could provide enough shooting to open things up for James and keep Chicago’s defense honest. Then again, that’d leave Cleveland’s bench awfully thin, while also perhaps marginalizing Thompson, one of the few legitimately useful reserves in the arsenal. The matchups — especially against a seemingly healthy and surging Chicago squad — aren’t exactly appealing.
Blatt knew he’d be facing a significant challenge when he accepted the offer to leave Maccabi Tel Aviv and take Cleveland’s reins after four straight sub-.500 finishes. Thanks to the LeBron and Love trades, and then the Mozgov, Smith and Shumpert trades, he wound up having to deal with a much different set of issues than he initially expected. Now, though, the Cavaliers’ chances of staying afloat in a second-round series and keeping their championship hopes alive could well rest on whether the combination of Blatt’s lineup management and the playmaking genius of James and Irving can be strong enough to withstand a massive in-postseason shakeup.
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