This past Sunday, a violent tug of the shoulder may have changed the landscape of the entire Eastern Conference playoffs. Kevin Love’s dislocated shoulder in Cleveland’s Game 4 victory over Boston could be a season-altering play for many other teams besides the Cavs.
While #BucksIn7 still lives on in my heart, Cleveland’s second-round opponent will realistically be the Bulls, since no team has ever come back from being down 3-0 in a series. Without Love, this could be a nightmare matchup for the Cavs. Chicago has effectively played the whole season with a two-center lineup, often utilizing both Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. If one of those guys is on the bench, another large dude in Taj Gibson picks up the slack.
Sans Love, the Cavs will have a hard time covering lineups with any two of those bruisers out there. Kendrick Perkins, who fortunately did not get suspended for his own dirty play (fortunate may be the wrong word for the Cavs), could be utilized with Timofey Mozgov to combat those behemoth lineups. However, the Cavs offense could resemble a clogged toilet with both of those guys being non-threats away from the rim. Heck, Perkins probably isn’t even a threat during layup drills.
The Cavs’ best strategy might be to just play small and try to outscore the Bulls. There are two options here. Once J.R. Smith returns, they could slot Iman Shumpert at small forward and have LeBron James play power forward. The King would likely reject this proposal and execute its creator (David Blatt), since LeBron has been known to whine about battling bigs on defense. While that lineup would surely slay on offense with either Noah or Gasol forced onto a Cavs’ wing, I’m not sure Cleveland can survive on the other side if LeBron can’t battle one of the co-centers.
The more realistic option here is that the Cavs replace Love’s minutes with a power forward conglomerate of Tristan Thompson, James Jones, Mike Miller and Shawn Marion’s corpse. Lineups featuring Thompson at the four alongside Mozgov could have similar issues to ones with Perkins, but Thompson is a lot more tolerable on the offensive end than Perk. Slotting Jones, Miller or mummified Marion would bolster the offense, but once again Cleveland would get roasted by the Bulls’ two-headed center monster on the other end.
The latter point may be where the Cavs miss Love the most. Love is a stretch four in the truest sense on offense, and has great passing vision and overall feel for the game, but he is by no means a defensive stopper. Despite this, he is a world-class rebounder. Love is so good on the glass that he is often accused of leaving his man early on defense to get ready for the board.
That nose for the ball might be the most important trait while facing the Bulls. Playing small against them will likely allow Noah and Gasol to do work in the post, but without Love, they’ll have a solid chance of cleaning up their own misses. Offensive rebounds are hugely valuable in the NBA, and against the small Cavs, the Bulls could gobble up just enough to creep their way to the conference finals.
While victory over the Cavs is no guarantee, especially since the King and his prince, Kyrie Irving, still reside in Cleveland, the door for the Bulls to wreak havoc in the Eastern Conference playoffs just blew wide open.
If the Bulls make it through, let’s think ahead to the tantalizing possibilities ahead. While the Hawks have struggled mightily with Brooklyn, I still expect them to advance to the second round, where they will face a frisky Wizards team. The Hawks machine has sputtered so much against the Nets that it would not shock me at all if Washington took them out and advanced to the conference finals to set up a rematch of last year’s first round series against the Bulls.
The sports world would then come to a standstill, faced with the possibility of the Wizards (!) making the Finals (!!!). That’s a very realistic scenario, considering how they’re playing right now and the fact they dispatched the Bulls quite easily in last year’s playoff series.
The bland alternative could be Derrick Rose going full circle on his return and taking his hometown team back to the Finals for the first time since a certain No. 23 carried the Bulls logo on his jersey. Yawn, who would ever want that? Before Sunday, if someone had written that out, I probably would have escorted him or her to a mental ward, but after Love’s scene-changing injury, the wild wild east is suddenly wide open.
Who do you think will come out of the East? Are LeBron and Company still the conference favorites? Or will Love’s injury derail the King’s ballyhooed homecoming? Email Rushad at email@example.com to discuss.