The experiment called the Cleveland Cavaliers has been dealt a double blow Thursday night: not only did they lose the opening away game of the 2015 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in overtime, but more importantly they have lost their point guard – and arguably secondary cannon – Kyrie Irving due to a fractured knee cap.
Irving, who had been plagued by tendinitis during the whole post-season, went down during an overtime possession and then limped off the floor under the horrified looks of coach David Blatt and the rest of the Cavs’ bench. Despite some hope that it might be just a day-to-day, next day’s verdict was merciless: fractured knee cap requiring surgery and about three or four months of recovery.
The injury was made even worse by the fact that Irving had posted glimpses of his regular season performances, posting a 23 points-7 rebounds-6 assists night which culminated with him sending the game into overtime by spectacularly blocking league MVP Steph Curry during the Warriors’ last possession in the fourth quarter.
With Kevin Love out of action with a dislocated shoulder since round 1, the Cavaliers’ chances are getting dimmer by the moment, as LeBron James remains to a degree the only weapon they have. And despite him posting up an NBA Finals personal record of 44 points in game 1, it was still not enough to down a Warriors’ team who didn’t even look to be at their best.
However, after news of Irving being ruled out for the rest of the series settled in, James assumed his usual leading role and, despite acknowledging the fact that they’re seriously considered underdogs now, said that his team is up for the challenge.
“You know, I said it’s going to be one of the most challenging seasons of my career from the beginning, and this just adds to it. We’re undermanned right now. But we’ve got guys in the locker room that are ready for the challenge, and we look forward to the challenge tomorrow night” told James to nba.com.
And to an extent, its a position with which he’s been accustomed even in Miami – with Dwayne Wade’s constant knee problems and Chris Bosh’s large swaths of going MIA during crucial games, it was up to James carrying the team behind him.
But that was also helped by the fact that the Heat also had some great bench debt and a ruthless second unit formed out of players such as Ray Allen, Chris Andersen, Mike Miller or James Jones which were always tasked with revitalizing the team when the Big Three were caught in a stump.
And to a degree, the same can be said about the Cavs now – with the latter two even being part of the roster. However, Blatt has preferred a short, 8-man rotation throughout the play-offs, maybe out of fear of disrupting what became a heavily-oiled mechanism in 2015. But now that its key parts have broken, the replacements may be rusty, but certainly could be worse.
The whole play-off saw one story central to the Cavaliers – the rise of the sturdy undrafted backcourt Matthew Dellavedova in place of the injured Irving. The Australian point guard doesn’t really boast the scoring and creative qualities of the All-Star he is bound to replace, but has risen during these play-offs from the status of an almost unknown bench player to that of a hero for the Cavs, and a villain for everyone else.
His competitive and aggressive nature saw him cause three important moments during the Eastern Conference semi-finals and final: he was responsible for having Chicago Bulls Taj Gibson and Atlanta Hawks All-Star center Al Horford ejected in crucial games, and also unwillingly caused a series ending injury to the Hawks’ master sharpshooter Kyle Korver. As much negative attention as he garnered, his grit, determination and heart might be exactly what the Cavs would need in lack of technical means – if he can manage to instill that attitude into his colleagues.
However, Blatt also has the luxury of holding a former All-Star and two NBA champions on the bench, and now might be the time to also lean on their experience. Admittedly, Kendrick Perkins, Shawn Marion and Mike Miller might have more rust on them than a 1969 Dodge Charger left in a garage since its initial purchase, but they are accustomed to the pressure of the NBA Finals – and Miller at least at playing in a back-up unit for a LeBron led team.
Not that much has passed since Celtics fans were sticking it up to the Lakers in pointing Perkins’ injury as the main cause of their 2010 finals defeat. Shawn Marion is past his All-Star heyday – but still managed to be a defensive staple for Dallas in their 2011 NBA championship run. And Miller’s bursts of three point bombardments were one of the main reasons the Heat held on to the epic 2013 final against the Spurs.
And these are three players who Blatt excluded from his 8-man rotation, but as far as desperate solutions go, he could be facing way worse than what he has at his disposal. One thing’s for certain though – the Cavs will not go down without a fight, and they certainly have the means for providing one.
Image Source: Forbes