CLEVELAND — Having been to the each of the last three NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers have learned to value postseason health over regular-season success. With just under eight minutes remaining in the first quarter of their 125-114 loss to the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday, both were thrown into jeopardy.
Just minutes into the game, forward Kevin Love left with a hand injury that turned out to be a non-displaced fracture. It's expected to sideline him for the next six to eight weeks, according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.
It was set up to be a harmless, early-game high-low play with Love receiving a Tristan Thompson pass under the rim. Thompson's defender, Detroit's Anthony Tolliver, left the center at the top of the key, closed in on Love and swiped down, sending the ball out of bounds. Instead, it left Love's hand a palette of blacks and blues, putting the Cavaliers' near future in question.
"When it rains, it pours," Cleveland head coach Ty Lue told reporters following the loss. "To lose an All-Star in the midst of what we're going through is tough. We feel sorry for Kevin after having such a hell of a year. You hate to see anyone get injured at any point in time of the season, but we have to rally the troops. We have to have his back until he gets back."
Lue's Cavaliers have now dealt with significant injuries to guards Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert. There's also the calf injury to longtime iron man Tristan Thompson. While all four of those players have either returned or continue to work toward being back at full speed, losing Love may be the biggest setback yet for Cleveland.
The Cavs head into the final day of January with a 5-8 record for the month, and the trade deadline is only eight days away. What Love's injury means for Cleveland depends on who can shoulder a heavier load in his absence and who remains on the roster beyond Feb. 8.
Pressure Shifts to Isaiah Thomas
If there was any question as to where Thomas fit on the Cavaliers' totem pole, Love's impending absence will cement the guard as the No. 2 offensive option behind LeBron James. But Thomas is a 5'9" guard who thrives in space and volume, not someone who can make up for the loss of a 6'10" mismatch nightmare.
"It sucks," Thomas said following the game. "He's a big part of this team. It just has to be a 'next guy up' mentality. As a collective group, we have to bring what Kevin does. Not just one guy can bring what he does, as he's such a special player It sucks, but injuries happen. I'm just glad it's not worse. We just have to hold the fort down until he gets back, and that's the plan."
During Tuesday's loss, Thomas shot only 3-of-10 from the field, but he managed to get to the free-throw line 13 times. He continues to stagnate Cleveland's offense and is an enormous liability on defense, especially against pick-and-rolls and in transition.
The Pistons had the league's 10th-worst offense heading into Tuesday, but they managed to use a 16-2 run midway through the fourth quarter to put the game away. Thomas' game-worst minus-25 rating was a microcosm of what Cleveland has dealt with since his return.
If it were up to the team's training staff, Thomas would not have suited up until April. Thomas himself concedes he is not yet 100 percent, and he plans to use this time to get back to his previous All-NBA level. As of Tuesday night, Thomas graded himself at 75 to 80 percent. He isn't as confident as he usually is. He's struggling mentally and physically, as his body is not letting him do what he wants it to.
"I just have to be patient," Thomas said regarding his road back to prominence. "I have to set small goals for myself. Coming back, I just want it all right now, and that's just not realistic. I just try to stay positive and keep pushing and keep working every day. I know one day soon it'll come back, and I'll be the player I've always been."
When James discussed Love's injury following the game, he turned to his left and knocked on the wooden locker housed within the Little Caesars Arena visitor's locker room in hopes of staving off any further ailments.
"Obviously, with everything that's been going on as of late, with our ball club trying to figure out how we're going to play every night with different lineups and getting everybody into the flow, it's just tough on us."
James, in turn, will have to carry an even larger load on both ends of the floor. Thomas will fill in the gaps when the four-time MVP sits, and he'll provide a scoring boost from the team's backcourt. What appeared to be a Big Three heading into this season is looking more and more like another stretch of a Cavaliers roster struggling to find its way during a regular-season run.
'It's a Huge Blow'
If there's any silver lining for the Cavs, it's that Love suffered the injury to his off-hand. That's far better than the alternative, such as when Love suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the first round of the 2015-16 Eastern Conference playoffs during a freak play in the post.
While no injury is well-timed, this one caps off a tumultuous stretch for the Cavaliers forward. Heading into Tuesday, Love was averaging 18.6 points and 9.2 rebounds and was just weeks away from taking part in the All-Star Game. This will now mark the second consecutive season wherein Love will be forced to miss the midseason festivities.
"It's a huge blow for our team, obviously," James said of Love's absence. "Any time you lose an All-Star, or lose any part of your crew, it's a tough blow.
Roughly one year ago, Love was set to represent the Eastern Conference, but he instead had to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Love wound up missing six weeks and took some time to get back up to playing shape, but he had a strong playoff run before the Golden State Warriors bounced the Cavs in five games during the 2017 NBA Finals.
By the time Love went down, however, the Cavs had already dealt for Kyle Korver and spent the next several weeks implementing a motion-based shooter into their offense. This time around, Love's exit will come on the heels of a much-discussed airing of grievances within the Cavs locker room that stemmed from Love missing most of their blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in addition to practice the subsequent day.
Love's production has taken a considerable hit since the team activated Thomas. In December, he had his most efficient offensive month of the season, producing a true shooting percentage of 63.5. Since Thomas' return in early January, that mark has dropped to 57.9.
If the Cavaliers hold on to Thomas through the deadline, it will give them roughly one month of regular-season play to implement a game plan featuring both he and Love.
"It's bigger mentally than it is physically," Thomas said of Love's injury. "He's had injuries before, but he just has to stay connected to what's going on with this team, and continue to rehab and do whatever he has to do get back as soon as possible. But he's got to be smart about it, and I know he will."
Who Fills the Void?
Lue turned to Channing Frye for the second consecutive game Tuesday, and the veteran responded with 20 points on just nine shots. This season, the Cavaliers are 18-2 when Frye plays at least 11 minutes, compared to an 11-18 record when he plays fewer than 11 minutes.
The floor-stretching big man appears to be the natural beneficiary of Love's absence, provided he remains in Cleveland following the trade deadline. In the final year of a contract that pays him $7.4 million, Frye could be included as salary filler in a deal for another highly compensated player.
"You just have to keep going and do your job," Frye said following the loss. "It's a tough break. He's been playing some damn good basketball. He's been a workhorse. You can't ask one guy to average 17 and 11. We all have to step our game up. Our rotation goes down a bit more. Guys have to be focused and ready to go."
"I'm sure guys are up for the challenge. It's going to be a tough task, but we can handle it."
Lue could also turn to Jae Crowder, who he recently sent to the bench in favor of moving Tristan Thompson back into the starting lineup. The 27-year-old was the team's starting power forward for much of the season, but he recently fell out of favor as Cleveland began its seemingly annual midseason spiral.
"It was a reaction basis," Lue said of his second-half lineup Tuesday. "It might be one of those things depending upon who we play and the matchup, it could be on a matchup basis. We'll just see going forward."
Outside of Love, Frye, and Crowder, the only other frontcourt player on the Cavs is raw rookie Ante Zizic. A throw-in prospect in the deal for Kyrie Irving, Zizic is a pure 7-footer with decent per-36-minute metrics, but no contender would willingly want to rely on him in the late stages of the NBA postseason.
"We're already limited in our bigs anyway; we're getting a lot smaller now," said James.
The Cavaliers have been linked to Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, but most deadline rumors have pegged Cleveland's front office eying up a defensive upgrade in the backcourt, be it through Sacramento's George Hill or Jordan's teammate, Lou Williams.
While Love should return prior to the postseason, his injury could cause Cleveland to tilt its wish list more toward size and rim protection. As if the Cavaliers' shortcomings hadn't been magnified enough over the first month of 2018, things may only get worse with a depleted frontcourt and defensively limited guards.
With Bleacher Report's Ken Berger reporting Tuesday that the Cavaliers front office is dealing with a bevy of ownership-related obstacles, the coming days will be critical for first-year general manager Koby Altman. As it stands now, Lue plans on rolling forward with the players he has at his disposal, hoping someone can carry some portion of the load left in the wake of Love's injury.
"I can't speak to that," Lue said of potential trades that could impact his roster. "I have to coach the guys we have. We have a great group. We know we have to be better."