Even though the Cavaliers finished off the Celtics in a sweep today with a 101-93 win, they paid the price for it. In the first quarter, the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk and Cleveland’s Kevin Love were chasing a loose ball near the sideline when Olynyk appeared to foul love by holding his left arm. Love then appeared to grimace in pain, and he was in a lot of it; he grabbed his shoulder and ran toward the bench area. Then, something strange happened. Love didn’t stop at the bench to receive attention; he ran (sprinted, actually) toward the Cavs’ locker room. While the severity of the injury is not yet known, Love missed the remainder of the game and was diagnosed with a dislocated or separated shoulder. He will receive more medical attention when the team returns to Cleveland. For his part, Love felt that the play was dirty and said so after the game, saying: “I thought it was a bush-league play. I have no doubt in my mind that he did it on purpose.” While we should not accuse Olynyk of foul play, we can assess if the Cavs have any chance to win the championship without him.
First, the important thing: the average timetable of return from this type of injury is normally four weeks. That would bring him back for around game 3 or 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals if his team gets that far without him. Assuming the Bulls close out Milwaukee at some point, there will be major matchup problems for the Cavaliers to compensate for. For example, Love would be matched up on Pau Gasol of the Bulls. While Love’s defense is not the greatest, what he brings on the offensive end cannot be ignored. His ability to space the floor and make life easier for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to create shots will be missed.
Speaking of Love’s three point shooting, 41.2% of his field goal attempts this season have been from three point range, a career high. While much has been made of this as a negative for Love, as all of his major statistics have dropped this season, it could have been expected with his being traded from the Timberwolves last season. However, his ability to shoot three pointers is vital because it brings the big men of other teams out to the perimeter, making them guard him at least 20 feet away from the baskets. This creates more room for jump shots, and even if they are missed, allows bigs like Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson the ability for easy putbacks. So the next time you complain about Love staying out at the perimeter too much, realize that he is actually helping his team that way.
In one of my previous articles, I had picked the Cavaliers and the Bulls to play each other in the conference semifinals. In that same article, I said that the Cavaliers would win said series in seven games. Well, that was then and this is now. I do not believe that the Cavaliers can beat the Bulls without Kevin Love. While it is not the same type of backbreaking injury such as the torn ACL that Bulls star Derrick Rose suffered in the first game of the 2012 playoffs, it should make the difference between the Cavaliers winning the series by a hair to them losing it by a hair. While they will not lose a step defensively with the athletic Tristan Thompson manning Love’s position, the team will suffer offensively, as Thompson cannot shoot jump shots very well. This inability to spread out the defense will also lead to the Bulls being able to help/double team on LeBron and Kyrie. This will lead to more difficult shots, and while Thompson is a better offensive rebounder than Love, getting shots to go in in the first place will be an enormous task.
Another thing to think about is how long J.R. Smith will be out after his decking of the Celtics Jae Crowder. Early in the third quarter, Smith and Crowder were fighting underneath for position. Smith hit Crowder hard on the jaw, and Crowder also suffered a nasty leg injury on the play. After the game, Smith said he was “nervous as hell” about a potential suspension. This is important because Smith, in the starting lineup, has an innate ability to shoot three pointers off the catch rather than having to dribble to create. If forced to sit, it is unknown who would start in his place. Potential replacements include backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova, or, in the more likely solution, defensive ace Iman Shumpert. Both are solid three-point shooters, but are not as good as Smith.
Given the injury and impending suspension, look for the Cavaliers to struggle. Because the Bulls are coming.