Kevin Love's Injury May Force Cavs to Change, Test Worthiness to Be Champs

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterApril 27, 2015

Brandon Wade/AP Images

The early diagnosis was a dislocation, Kevin Love's shoulder no longer fitting in its socket, but awkwardly fitting out. Consider it symbolic of his season. After all, disconnection has been the storyline of his first campaign as a Cavalier: perceived disconnection from teammates, uncomfortable disconnection from his former role, ongoing disconnection between what the public expects from him and what the Cavaliers do.

Whatever criticism has come Love's way this season, it typically hasn't originated from those inside the Cavaliers organization. Team officials didn't view him as a disappointment, not in light of his 38 double-doubles—more than all but nine players, six of whom, unlike him, were selected for the All-Star Game—and not when the Cavaliers' plus-7.4 points per 100 possessions with Love playing is the same as it is when Kyrie Irving does.

Their concern hasn't been as much with how he's played but about how he's felt about how he's played, especially as outsiders have needled him with the narrative that he isn't doing nearly what he once did. 

The league will likely suspend J.R. Smith to begin Cleveland's next series.
The league will likely suspend J.R. Smith to begin Cleveland's next series.Mark Duncan/Associated Press/Associated Press

And they knew, more than anything, that it was critical for him to stay healthy and confident, entering the inevitable playoff showdown with the Chicago Bulls

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So that's why these will be nervous hours and perhaps days for the Cavaliers, in the aftermath of their contentious and costly sweep of the Boston Celtics and as they wait for Chicago to finish off Milwaukee.

It doesn't help that J.R. Smith, who had shown much greater maturity since his midseason acquisitionseemingly taking the next step as a human, as Cavaliers GM David Griffin had boldly predictedstepped back by swinging back at Jae Crowder in a manner that may earn him a multigame suspension.

But Smith, reliable as he was prior to making just eight of 30 three-pointers against Boston, can be reasonably replaced by other options, whether it's Iman Shumpert, James Jones or maybe even the David Blatt-banished Mike Miller. 

Love's skill set is more unique in that it creates a counter to the way Chicago likes to play, which is why Kelly Olynyk's "bush league" playin Love's wordswas so unwelcome for Cleveland.

The Bulls have four "big league" bigs, two of whom (Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson), when healthy, are extremely active defenders. The other two (Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic) are far more accomplished on the other end but, at an even 7'0" and 6'10", respectively, still can accidentally alter some shots if they're allowed to camp near the hoop.

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 19:  Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots against Taj Gibson #22 of the Chicago Bulls on January 19, 2015 at The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

As a stretch 4, Love could offer the antidote to the Bulls' patented paint-clogging formula simply by standing out near the arc.

He need not even be all that accurate.   

Consider that the three times the Cavaliers beat the Bulls, they were plus-seven, plus-five and plus-two with Love on the court, even as he made only 12 of 42 shots (28.6 percent) overall, including just five of 17 from deep.

Also consider what occurred in the one game the Cavaliers played without him against Chicago. Tristan Thompson, the spot starter, made all five of his shots, and center Timofey Mozgov made five of six, and the Cavaliers still got rolled, 113-98. There were other factors other than Love's absenceperhaps some pre-All-Star break lethargy, as well as a refreshed Derrick Rose carrying the Bulls offense with Jimmy Butler sitting, running circles around Kyrie Irving.

But the Cavaliers' lack of spacing stuck out with Thompson startinghe was a minus-18, second-worst on the team to LeBron James, who looked a little lost at times with one fewer shooter. Cleveland was somewhat more competitive in that contest with Jones playing alongside James at forward, even as Jones made only two of eight shots from deep. 

So if Love misses any part of the looming matchup with the Bulls, it will force Blatt to make some adjustments, and not only in strategy.

Blatt has come a long way in some areas in this, his first NBA season. For instance, for all the loud, valid complaints about him overplaying his stars early, he eventually, intelligently eased James down to the lowest minute average (36.1) of James' career. He also wisely strayed from his Princeton offense when his players rebelled against itwhile some would have seen stubbornness as strength, as a sign that he's squarely in charge, there's something to be said for flexibility in the name of harmony. 

But Blatt has had a habit, one that was especially evident in the first half of the season, of making more public excuses than most of his NBA counterparts, frequently referencing the season-ending injury to Anderson Varejao (who, while a popular teammate, wasn't a net-positive when he played this season) and the multi-week absence of eminently replaceable backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova.

He did so even as coaches around the NBA, from Oklahoma City to Indiana to Miami to Detroit to Portland to Chicago, were suffering more profound calamities and yet sounding the refrains of "no excuses" or "we have enough" or "next man up."

They don't just do that for show.

CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 19:  David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers practices during an all-access event on March 19, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is co
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

When asked why he always downplays player absences, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told Bleacher Report earlier this season: "The alternative is pretty silly, to come out and use it as an excuse. You just want to have people focus on who's available and doing what their job is. So it's irrelevant who's hurt. You play with who's available. And the more a team understands that, the more they knuckle down and just do what they have to do, and don't feel sorry for themselves. You never want that to creep in. It's the only choice a coach has." 

Blatt increasingly made that choice as the season wore on, aided by the Cavaliers coming together. As the wins piled up, fewer reporters questioned his readiness for the role, and he made less defensive references to the adversities the Cavaliers were encountering.

That's the same tone he needs to take now, if his team is without Smith, Love or both. It's the tone that the Heat, specifically Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley, consistently took during James' time in that organization, an example James followed as he eventually adopted the same attitude.

So, it was no surprise that James said this Sunday, when asked about Love: "You just control what you can control. That's all we can do. We have a small period of time to get better, then it's next man up. We're a team, they're two big pieces obviously, but next man up. No excuses. Just get ready to go out and play."

Blatt will need to get them ready for any and all contingencies. Then, after his initial adjustments, he may need to adjust again, the way Spoelstra did in 2012.

It's eerie how Love keeps re-living Chris Bosh's nightmares, whether it's been stepping back from the first to the third option, getting scapegoated from all sides and now, getting hurt during a postseason run. Bosh tore an abdominal muscle during Game 1 of a 2012 second-round series against Indiana, and while he missed the next five games of that series and the first four of the next round against Boston, Spoelstra scuffled to find the right combination.

In the first game without Bosh, Spoelstra started Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem up front, and the Heat scored 75 points. In the next, Spoelstra started Dexter Pittman and Shane Battier, and the Heat scored, well, 75 points.

It took a switch to Battier and Turiaf, and one of the great three-game, two-man performances in NBA history—with James and Dwyane Wade combining for averages of 65.7 points, 18.7 rebounds and 11.7 assists—to eliminate Indiana. 

LeBron James is likely to find himself more in the post with Kevin Love out of the Cavs lineup.
LeBron James is likely to find himself more in the post with Kevin Love out of the Cavs lineup.Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Then, against Boston, Spoelstra replaced Turiaf with Joel Anthony in Game 4 and, with Bosh only ready to come off the bench, Anthony with Haslem for Games 5 through 7. Through all of that struggle, that trial and often error, Spoelstra stumbled upon what the Heat came to call "small ball," with Bosh joining Battier as a starter in Game 2 of the NBA Finals against Oklahoma City.

It was an unforeseen, somewhat unnatural evolution.

It led to two rings. 

Certainly, the Cavaliers preferred not to need to repeat the Heat's resourcefulness; James, in particular, doesn't like to play the 4-spot and made that plainly known during his time with Miami, even as the Heat's numbers were devastatingly dominant with him in that role. It was one of the few lingering points of contention, in what otherwise grew into a relatively healthy relationship between coach and star.

Understanding James' sensitivity on the subject, Spoelstra began using the term "position-less" mostly so reporters wouldn't commonly classify James as a power forward. 

James Jones may find his services needed more from behind the three-point arc in a possible matchup with Chicago in Round 2.
James Jones may find his services needed more from behind the three-point arc in a possible matchup with Chicago in Round 2.David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever James is called now, Blatt will need to find whatever lineup best suits his talents, to best compete with a big, versatile Chicago team that, after all its injuries over the past few seasons, won't be the least bit sympathetic. 

If Blatt can't use the lineup of Mozgov-Love-James-Smith-Irving, one that was plus-204 in a team-most 418 minutes, he'll need to quickly identify another. Maybe if Smith is available, and Love isn't, he will try Mozgov-Thompson-James-Smith-Irving, but that was a minus-seven in 75 minutes. Maybe, if he has neither Smith nor Love, he'll need to try a group that has played just 13 minutes together, like Irving-Shumpert-James-Thompson-Mozgov, or nine minutes, like Irving-Shumpert-Jones-James-Mozgov. 

That would be unfamiliar and unconventional, but it's hardly unprecedented for a contender to encounter some uncomfortable circumstances, making it unbecoming to offer any excuse. And making it a great chance to prove they're worthy of becoming champions.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.

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