On Monday, we learned that Kevin Love would "be unavailable for" the entire Eastern Conference semifinals after suffering a dislocated left shoulder midway through the first quarter of the Cleveland Cavaliers' series-clinching Game 4 win over the Boston Celtics. On Tuesday, Cavs general manager David Griffin told reporters he expected the three-time All-Star power forward to be sidelined for a lot longer than that:
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David Griffin says its "highly unlikely" that Kevin Love returns at any point during the playoffs.— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) April 28, 2015
#Cavs GM David Griffin says Kevin Love likely done for season, shoulder extensively damaged.— Tom Withers (@twithersAP) April 28, 2015
That timeline for Love's recovery from his shoulder injury — in medical parlance, an "acute anterior inferior glenohumeral dislocation with the corresponding ligament/labrum tearing and humeral head bone bruising," according to the Cavs' Monday evening update — obviously far exceeds previous reported estimates that he might miss a couple of weeks, and falls more in line with the dire picture painted by Jeff Stotts of injury-focused blog In Street Clothes:
The return to play time following shoulder dislocation appears to be dependent on the amount of damage to the surrounding tissues, particularly the labrum. If the tear is small and the instability is minimal, general rehab can improve the area with a focus on improving the musculature surrounding the joint. Surgery may still be warranted down the road but it can be delayed. Still the associated pain and swelling often requires time to heal. Additionally, even if this ends up being an option for Love, the risk for re-injury would be considerable for the remainder of the postseason. A significant labrum tear would likely require immediate surgery and force Love to miss a substantial amount of time.
Stotts' injury database, which covers the past 3 1/2 years, includes "18 in-season injuries classified as complete dislocations." Fourteen of those 18 players missed at least 10 games following their injuries, with eight requiring surgical repair. It sounds like Love's going to join their number.
Griffin wouldn't slam the door completely — “I still have a sliver of hope for something very late, but highly unlikely,” he said, according to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal — but that seems to be one awfully slim sliver, according to this follow-up from Bleacher Report national NBA writer Howard Beck:
To be clear, source adds: There's virtually zero chance Love plays again this postseason, even if Cavs make the Finals.— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) April 28, 2015
As I wrote Monday night, the Cavaliers offense has been lights out with Love and middling without him this season. But due to his steady presence in the Cavaliers lineup this season — 75 appearances, more than 2,500 minutes, despite dealing with recurring lower back issues — there haven't been many opportunities for Cleveland to test-drive lineup combinations without him and find solutions that might minimize the loss of his spacing, rebounding and playmaking; Cleveland could well have some viable answers in-house that just haven't needed to be explored just yet.
One particularly enticing adjustment: four-time MVP LeBron James sliding from small forward to power forward, as he did so successfully during the Miami Heat's runs to the NBA finals. Small-ball lineups featuring James at the four necessitate deploying an additional wing player at the three, which helps replace Love's shooting and floor-spacing while allowing LeBron to work out of the post, hunt double-teams and orchestrate the Cleveland offense from the block.
But with starting shooting guard J.R. Smith suspended for the first two games of the second round after decking the Celtics' Jae Crowder during Game 4, Cleveland won't be especially deep on the wing entering the conference semis. Veterans James Jones and Mike Miller loom as experienced shooters who might be able to provide swing-spot punch in a pinch, but at this stage in their careers, neither should be counted on to provide much beyond a 3-point stroke or hold up defensively against strong wing scorers like, for example, Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls.
Despite being no spring chicken himself, Shawn Marion represents a more versatile defensive and complementary playmaking option. But as a mostly non-threatening shooter — just 29 percent from 3-point land over the past seven years, with just one league-average long-range shooting season since 2003 — opponents would likely stray far from him in the half-court in order to gum up the works of the Cavs' more dangerous options. The same is true of reserve power forward Tristan Thompson, who's been a rebounding machine this season and who terrorized the Celtics on the offensive glass, but whom opponents can essentially ignore unless he's bulling his way to the backboard.
An awful lot, then, figures to be asked of reserves Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova, the most likely wing options in a LeBron-at-the-four configuration with Smith sidelined. Both players can make open shots, offer some active-hands defense while playing up a spot in the order, and keep the ball moving ahead of defensive rotations. But Cavaliers opponents are going to have to see them consistently make plays when the defense loads up against LeBron's post-ups and Kyrie Irving's drives before believing they should start paying more attention to them; if they can't, Cleveland could find itself in a precarious position by the time Smith returns for Game 3.
Whatever plans LeBron, Kyrie and head coach David Blatt come up with between now and the start of Round 2 next week, it's now clear that the Cavs will be forced to pursue the second NBA Finals berth in franchise history with a dynamic duo rather than a Big Three. As bad-news scenarios go, of course, that's far from a world-ender, but it's still enough for Griffin and company to look to reframe Cleveland's narrative heading into the second round:
David Griffin ends his press remarks by saying the Cavs have gone from being the hunted to the hunters. They're embracing being underdogs.— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) April 28, 2015
On Sunday morning, the Cavaliers looked like they'd coast into their next matchup with time to rest, practice and prepare to hit higher gears as the playoffs proceeded. Now, they find themselves scraping for answers and considering themselves underdogs. Things sure can change pretty damn quickly in the NBA playoffs.
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