How The Injuries Out West Affect The Cleveland Cavaliers Path To An NBA Championship
Steph Curry goes down for the count, seeing at least two weeks off with a Grade 1 MCL Sprain and suddenly all of LA feels like this might just be the year. Just as I began to write about how this injury affects Cleveland, several “are the Clippers the new favorite” pieces even cropped up within hours of Curry’s injury, and then suddenly, right on cue, the Basketball Gods gave the Warriors a huge break as both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin went down for the season in a 15 minute span, and the Portland Trail Blazers who were supposed to be “rebuilding” have now gone further in the playoffs this season than they did during any of their “contending” years.
No one likes injury in the NBA. Sure it might help your team’s position (OKC and SAS) but even then it just feels empty to play against a team that isn’t at full strength. While the Western Conference has seen a more notable shake up, throwing the title chase into total chaos, injury has been a major factor in this year’s playoffs. The Cleveland Cavaliers run, while not seeing any injury personally, has very much been dictated by injury already, and will a continued impact both on the type of basketball Lue will have to run during the games, as well as their potential opponents as they continue this quest for the ring.
I’d like to start by just congratulating Kevin Love for staying patient and working to now see the second round for the first time. Congrats go out to Kyrie Irving for putting in the work and taking care of his body. We, the Cavs fans, really appreciate it. Speaking of Kevin Love’s shoulder, The Boston Celtics suffered a crippling injury that dynamically changed the landscape of the East’s playoffs. Due to Steph Curry, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin all succumbing to injury, everybody just seemed to have forgotten about Avery Bradley. One of the most prolific scorers on the Boston Celtics, his injury almost singlehandedly gave the series to Atlanta, who based on raw talent alone could have been seen as inferior to their green opponents.
Playing against Atlanta actually gives Cleveland an advantage over Boston. While both teams were swept by Cleveland last year, it’s Atlanta’s style of play that gives Cleveland an advantage. Boston was a chippy team, playing incredibly physically and aggressive when down. Both teams might have been able to take a game away from Cleveland on the way to losing the series, but Boston would be more likely to try and grab a player on the way out as well. On top of that, a healthy Boston Celtics, coached by Brad Stevens, could potentially put some serious pressure on Lue’s rotations and coaching ability. While Budenholzer is very good, as are most pupils of the legendary Gregg Popovich, Stevens is on another level as a coach. The series would still be won either way, but now Cleveland gets to face the arguably easier, softer opponent going into the second round.
I think Indiana will still win, and keep the Raptors out of the second round again, and there are no injuries there, so that’s good. Chris Bosh being out might also have a massive effect on Cleveland’s road to the finals. Initially seen as maybe fringe 8th seed candidates, the Charlotte Hornets have defied expectations and forced a Game 7 before running out of gas. Nic Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, two of the franchises best players, were side-lined, Batum for several weeks and Kidd-Gilchrist for the season.
Despite the injuries that aren’t talked about too often, its Steph Curry and Chris Paul who made waves with their injuries. Chris Paul going down has very little bearing on the Cavs playoff run. While yes now it’s more likely that Lillard and his “rebuilding” Trailblazers are headed to a second round date with Golden State, in the end Golden State has their road to the Western Conference Finals on lock. It’s who comes out of the West that this injury really affects.
Looking at the Oklahoma City/San Antonio series is somewhere important to start. Despite being the higher betting line in Vegas, Oklahoma City might just hold the advantage in this series. A San Antonio/Golden State matchup in the West Finals has been booked since day one of this season, but an Oklahoma City upset is not out of the realm of possibilities. During the regular season SAS and OKC split the series 1-1, and that loss came off of the second game in a back to back, with San Antonio getting two days rest beforehand. And it who comes out of this matchup that really determines the fate of the Golden State Warriors and through them, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Are the Cavs the new title favorites? It really depends on what team, and what kind of team comes out of the west. Many sports pundits will disagree, but I believe that Cleveland could take any of the three teams that come out of the west as long as the conditions are right. If it is either the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder, there is regular season proof that Cleveland can win, and they have only gotten better since those outings. If Golden State can’t play as a unit to the level expected, Cleveland might just be facing an opponent they weren’t expecting. But if Golden State can play as a unit, or Steph comes back early, the game plan for Cleveland will alter based on those injuries.
Steph Curry returning draws many parallels with Kyrie Irving’s return during game one of the NBA Finals. He will still be injured, to what extent no one is really sure, but this will not be 100% Steph stepping onto that court, even a month after the injury. How do you capitalize on that? Stick Delly on him and hope that the hustle shuts down Steph. Is it bad to wish injury on anyone? It absolutely is and it’s sick to even suggest that. Is it wrong to put a player who has a history of injuring players due to his hustle and tenacity? It’s a gray area for everyone not in favor of the Cavs, and one that likely Tyronn Lue will have no problem crossing into. The plan was likely just to hide Kyrie on Klay Thompson anyway, despite his defense improving since the start of the playoffs (but still, an improvement from dismal is still only “below average”), and putting a strong, defensive oriented, taller point guard will help smother the match up more than the injury already does. This injury, depending on how much of an effect it has on Curry’s play, may also affect how Lue staggers players, allowing potentially for more rest, or the exploitation of the GS second unit.
Injury is just the worst part of sports. It makes games less fun, even if it does help a team. That being said injuries drastically change the layout of a playoff series, and really alter the game plan for any team facing off against one of those teams. While the “marque” injuries of this year have spawned in the Western Conference, it’s those that came out of the East that have both affected Cleveland the most, but have drastically shifted the favor of lower seeded teams. If Cleveland stays healthy, the answer to the question of if Cleveland is the favorite will be easily answered with just one word.
Yes, the Cavs should be title favorites.