When news broke on Friday that Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving would miss the rest of the NBA Finals with a broken kneecap, reported by ESPN, you could almost hear the collective groan coming from the downtrodden Cleveland fanbase.
The Cavaliers were already considered heavy underdogs before the series began, and their chances became even slimmer with Irving’s injury. After coming within inches of stealing Game 1, what hope can Cavs fans realistically have of seeing the city’s 51-year championship drought snap?
From the Cavaliers’ perspective, there are a couple of tangible reasons to fall back on to prevent the onset of a doom-and-gloom mood.
As soon as forward Kevin Love was ruled out for the playoffs with a shoulder injury, depth became the Cavaliers’ biggest concern. Losing Irving obviously exacerbates the situation, but Game 2 will not be the first time this postseason that two-thirds of the Big Three will have been absent.
Against the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, Irving missed Games 2 and 3 with an injured left knee, but the Cavaliers still won both. Head coach David Blatt used a seven-man rotation, and he will likely stick with that rotation for the remainder of the Finals.
Because Blatt had to use a two-man bench in the last series, the added minutes each player will be forced to play in Irving’s absence will not be as much of a shock as it could've been. Add in the extra days of rest the Finals schedule provides, and that give LeBron James and the co. more time to recover.
Now, the Warriors are not the Hawks, and in addition to being the league’s most efficient team, they are also the deepest. Golden State used 10 players in Game 1, including forward Marreese Speights, who had missed the previous eight playoff games and ranked third on the team during the regular season with a 19.6 PER, recorded by ESPN.
Guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson deservedly get most of the attention, but the Warriors’ supporting cast is among the best in the league. Golden State’s bench outscored Cleveland’s 34-9 in Game 1, and the Warriors’ bench players had a combined plus/minus rating of plus-23.
Cleveland’s bench players combined for a minus-32 and shot 3-for-14 from the field. The Cavaliers’ role players are not on par with their Warriors counterparts, but they have produced much better performances in these playoffs, and a return to their playoff averages will make a world of difference.
Guard Matthew Dellavedova, who figures to see the biggest increase in minutes with Irving out, has shot 36 percent on 3-point attempts this postseason. He struggled bringing the ball up the court with Curry guarding him, though that problem could be avoided by having James initiate the offense more often. Guard Iman Shumpert handled point-guard duties in his rookie season with the Knicks and could also be used in this role if need be.
Tristan Thompson grabbed 15 rebounds in Game 1 and has done well on the defensive end this postseason. Offensively, most of his contributions come from putbacks and dump-off passes while he’s cutting to the basket, but he scored only two points in Game 1.
Although they grabbed 13 offensive rebounds—including six by Thompson—the Cavaliers shot 1-for-11 after those offensive rebounds, according to ESPN's Tom Haberstroh. That number is almost guaranteed to improve moving forward.
J.R. Smith is the player the Cavaliers most desperately need bounce back from a poor Game 1 performance. Added minutes for Smith will hurt the team defensively, but it only takes one hot shooting streak from him to change the course of a game.
Cleveland’s supporting cast's returning to form would greatly improve the team's chances, but everyone is fully aware the biggest thing the Cavs have going for them is LeBron James.
He was spectacular in Game 1, but it was far from the best playoff game we’ve seen from him. As absurd as it sounds, the Cavs will need more from LeBron in order to pull off an upset. Even more absurd is that it seems he has more to give.
That might not have been enough to convince anybody to put their faith in the Cavs winning the title, let alone win more than one game. It’s going to be an uphill battle against what could potentially be one of the best teams of all time, according to FiveThirtyEight.
But the Cavaliers’ biggest source of comfort is that they have the ultimate doomsday device in LeBron. Irving’s absence hurts, but it will force James to take more control offensively, and having him make more decisions with the ball is never a bad thing.
James can do things that no other player on the planet can. With a little more help from his friends, the Cavaliers might just be able to make things interesting.