Cavs’ Title Hopes Hit Snag

Dan Bisno and Henry Weissberg

Attention Oberlin College seniors: You have two more sure opportunities to see LeBron live in action this season — maybe forever. Shell out the big bucks and see the best athlete on the planet throw down.

It was a midsummer’s dream come true for Cavaliers fans. In early July, as the haze wafted off the asphalt basketball courts in Cleveland, countless fans asked themselves: Where will LeBron land? Many were still bitter after his “decision” to move to Miami in 2010, but was it time for the prodigal son to return after four finals appearances and two championships in South Beach?

In July of that summer, LeBron posted a heartfelt essay to the Sports Illustrated website answering that question: He was coming back to Cleveland. His words revealed a man who missed his city, his fans, his childhood, his home. It wasn’t about money or winning. It was about coming back to the place and people he loved. He displayed outstanding signs of maturity since his highly criticized ESPN interview in 2010 that included his famous, gut-wrenching quote, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.” Then Cavaliers fans burned his jersey, but since, he has not only solidified his status as the greatest player in the world but shown a tremendous amount of growth off the court. How could Cleveland not welcome him back with open arms?

Fast forward nine months: it’s April 26 and the Cavaliers are completing a four-game sweep of the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2015 NBA playoffs. Through free agency and strategic trading, Cavs General Manager David Griffin put together one of the most dominant squads in the East, a starting five of Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov. Coming into game four against Boston, Cleveland was the favorite to beat the winner of the Bulls-Bucks series in the next round and embark on LeBron’s fifth consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. Things were looking up for LeBron and the gang. Then injury struck.

As Cavs fans know, Kevin Love struggled a bit during the regular season this year, seeing his scoring and rebounding averages both take significant hits. With a stronger team around him, his stats fell, and he was no longer the double-double machine that he was in Minnesota. Frankly, he looked slow and lethargic, getting beat on 50/50 plays and plagued by back spasms all season. However, he was still a key cog in the Cavs’ dominant machine and was on top of his game in the playoffs, averaging 18.3 points, nine rebounds and three three-pointers made in the first three games of the series with Boston.

In game four, however, Love’s hot stretch came to a screeching halt. On a controversial play, while tussling for a contested rebound, Boston center Kelly Olynyk linked arms with Love, and during an extended struggle, he ripped Love’s shoulder out of its socket. The malice of this play is up for debate. No one can say whether or not Olynyk intended to injure Love, but his actions were questionable enough to earn him a one game suspension. Analysts have criticized Olynyk for not playing the ball or boxing out with his body and instead holding onto Love’s arm and shoulder as Love labored to reach the ball. Regardless of his intent, we can condemn Olynyk for putting another player in a risky situation. His one-game suspension does not begin to compare to the loss of a stud like Love on a team destined for a deep playoff run.

As if the loss of Love wasn’t bad enough, the Cavs also lost J.R. Smith to a two-game suspension for his actions during the game as well. On a defensive rebound, vying for position with the Celtics’ Jae Crowder, Smith flailed his right arm behind himself and struck Crowder in the face. Crowder fell to the floor and Smith was ejected for committing a flagrant two foul. The Cavs still prevailed 101–93, but the damage was done.

The losses of Love and Smith will have significant implications for the team’s next series. It’s a shame that such a long, hard-fought season could end with regrets about what would have been if the team had stayed healthy and out of trouble. Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert are expected to start in place of Love and J.R., and while both are strong options, one has to wonder who will fill in the role off the bench that those two provided throughout the season. Here’s hoping Mike Miller comes back from basketball purgatory with some more playoff magic.

Most importantly, the loss of these two starters puts even more pressure on Lebron to perform. Lebron is on a mission; he told us all in July that “bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio” is what’s most important to him. In the face of recent adversity, the challenge is certainly on.