It’s a wildly overused expression in sports—next man up. But in the Cavaliers case, the hackneyed phrase needs some tweaking: next men up.
After suffering a well-chronicled dislocated shoulder in the team’s first-round sweep of the Celtics, it’s unlikely that Kevin Love will see the hardwood again until next season. To compound matters, the Cavs will also miss their top outside threat, J.R. Smith, for their two games against the Bulls in the second round after being suspended for taking a swing at Boston's Jae Crowder.
For Cavalier faithful, losing key players at this time of year has a familiar ring to it. During the 1975-76 "Miracle at Richfield" season, Jim Chones broke his foot in practice and the team lost to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals. A decade later, in 1989, Cavs point guard Mark Price was slowed by a groin pull and a hip pointer against the Bulls. Though he missed the first game of the series, he rebounded in time to watch Michael Jordan sink his famous shot over Craig Ehlo.
“We’ve been working different lineups [without Love and Smith],” said LeBron James. “We’re trying to keep our rhythm the best we can.”
Cleveland now finds itself shorthanded in the postseason once again. Without two starters, the Cavaliers are forced to turn to a cast of veteran, little-used bench players—James Jones, Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and Kendrick Perkins—to help carry the load. Without Love, an All-Star stretch four, Cleveland doesn't have a big man capable of testing defenses in the paint and outside the three-point line. Without Smith, the team lacks a shooting guard to run the open floor, hit threes and create space. Surprisingly, though, it may be Smith's suddenly improved defense that will provide the biggest hole.
“Kevin and J.R. allowed us to do certain things on offense and defense,” said Cavaliers coach David Blatt. “Now we’ve got to find other ways to replace them."
“Everyone’s role changes,” said Tristan Thompson, who will likely receive a bulk of Love's minutes. “We’ve all got to step it up.”
Stepping up only seems natural during each successive round of the playoffs, as the stakes incrementally increase. After Game 4 against the Celtics, Kyrie Irving, who was playing in the first postseason series of his career, said, “That was the most physical game that I’ve ever played in.”
According to Iman Shumpert, there’s more to come. “I expect the physicality to go up a notch with every game,” he said. “It’s the postseason—guys don’t want to go home.”
It isn’t only Shumpert’s silo-size hairstyle that harkens memories of old-school hip-hop—think '80s band Cameo. He’s written a tune called “The Offs”—as in playoffs—meant to stoke the Cavaliers postseason run toward a title, featuring nods to everyone else on the roster. He refers to his most famous teammate, who’ll now likely post-up more often without Love in the lineup, as the grease that makes the gears turn: “It’s so easy to get open when you run with the King.”
Shumpert also knows that without Love and Smith, more will be required of him. “I’ll see added minutes and I’ve got to be ready to knock down any open shots,” he said. “I also won’t gamble as much for steals. The playoffs are all about possessions, so I’ve got to play a little more reserved.”
“Any offense we get from [Shumpert] is extra,” said James. “His focus is to wreak havoc defensively when he’s on the floor.”
The Cavaliers have spent a lot of time headed into their second-round series focusing on defense. With Derrick Rose healthy and a plethora of big men that will test Cleveland, Chicago's offense poses as dangerous of a threat as it has all season. “We’re gonna have to defend at the highest level,” said Blatt. “That’s the only way we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
But with every modification to his lineup, Blatt knows he has a gleaming pair of constants: LeBron and Kyrie. “We basically won the last game [against Boston] without Kevin and J.R.,” said Blatt. Then he breaks into a sly smile and lowers his head: “Think it’s an understatement to say that it’s great to have [James and Irving] on our team?”