OAKLAND — Kyrie Irving has a broken knee cap, Kevin Love is recovering from shoulder surgery and Anderson Varejao has been out since Christmas. The Cleveland Cavaliers have been decimated by injuries to three of their best players.
But they’ve still made it this far. They still have a chance to steal home-court advantage in The Finals in Game 2 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ABC). And they still have LeBron James, who’s been a pretty good one-star show this season.
James has played only 545 (less than 18 percent) of his total minutes (regular season and playoffs) with neither Irving nor Love on the floor. But the Cavs have outscored their opponents by 149 points in those 545 minutes, playing great on both ends of the floor.
Most of those minutes have been played with just one big alongside James. But in the one-star scenario, the Cavs have been good playing either big or small. With two bigs, they’ve been fantastic defensively. With James at the four, they’ve been much stronger offensively.
The Cavs’ two most-used, no-Irving-or-Love lineups have been both great. The small lineup — with Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, James and Tristan Thompson — is a plus-53 in 87 minutes. The big lineup (likely to start Game 2) — with Timofey Mozgov in Smith’s place — is a plus-59 in 82 minutes.
Both of those lineups have allowed less than 90 points per 100 possessions. But the Cavs’ defense has been at its best in those no-Irving-or-Love minutes with Mozgov on the floor.
Of course, the Cavs were a minus-13 in less than 10 minutes with Irving off the floor in Game 1 on Thursday. The Warriors have been the league’s best team all season. And Cleveland will need to figure out how to bend the Golden State defense a little, so that James can get more support from his supporting cast.
James has used 37.1 percent of the Cavs’ possessions when he’s been on the floor in the playoffs, a mark that leads the league by a wide margin. In 224 minutes with Irving off the floor in the playoffs, James’ usage rate is an incredible 46.4 percent.
So, how the Warriors defend him and how the Cavs deal with that defense becomes all the more important.
In Game 1, Golden State went one-on-one with James (for the most part), taking away his passing lanes and forcing him into tough shots. The result was a not-so-efficient 44 points from the Cavs’ star and not enough help from the guys around him.
But the Cavs were inches away from winning the game. And James made it clear on Friday that his 44 points were more about his ability than the Warriors’ defense.
“First of all, you can’t let me have 40,” James said when asked about the opponent’s game plan. “I go get 40. It’s not like they’re just getting out of the way. So those guys aren’t saying ‘we’re okay with letting him have 40.’ You don’t let me have 40. I’m making those shots.”
He also said that the Warriors’ defense wasn’t as simple as it may have looked.
“They’re not just giving me one steady dosage of ‘we’re going to just let him play,'” James said. “That’s what they want to get out to you guys, but that’s not what’s happening. Yeah, I see it all throughout the course of the game. They’ve given me different matchups, just trying to keep me off balance.
“But I’ve seen it all, and I’ve got to do a better job as well getting my other guys involved. I’m okay with getting big numbers and things of that nature, but I feel much better when I’m able to get my guys in rhythm and get them guys some more looks.”
Cavs coach David Blatt wants to see his team look for more opportunities to score before the Golden State defense is set up. Just seven of the Cavs’ 94 shots came in the first seconds of the shot clock on Thursday, according to SportVU. And it’s also on James’ teammates to get the defense to move when he has the ball.
“We can do a little bit of a better job moving without the basketball, attacking more in transition,” Blatt said Friday. “I didn’t think there was any particular advantage to playing him one way or the next. But because the result was what it was, you could interpret it that way.”
Most observers will count the Cavs out of this series after losing Game 1 and losing Irving in the process. They may ultimately be right. But there’s hope in just how well James has carried his team without its other two stars to this point.