By Chris Molicki
The NBA playoffs were shaping up to be rather predictable. The Warriors and Spurs would advance to the Western Conference Finals, have a seven-game slugfest, and the winner would meet, and probably beat, the Cavaliers.
But a handful of injuries have turned this postseason on its head, not just because of who’s hurt, but also because it’s a fresh reminder that injuries can pop up at any time.
First, it was the mother of all injuries: Likely MVP candidate Stephen Curry went down with an MCL sprain that’s expected to keep him out at least two weeks. What we don’t know is if Curry will actually come back in two weeks and if he’ll be 100% himself when he does return.
Then the injury bug bit the Clippers (the team that would seem to reap immediate benefits of the Curry injury), as they lost both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, as well as their title hopes.
Now with so much up in the air, everyone is discussing who could take advantage of the opportunity presented and become NBA champion. The Spurs are everyone’s favorites, as a team that dismantled the Memphis Grizzlies and is playing top-notch basketball behind two-way ace Kawhi Leonard. Some say the Thunder have a chance, as the 1-2 combo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook give them a higher ceiling than anyone. Now that the Clippers have been stripped to their bare bones, Golden State could survive a second round battle against them without Curry and potentially get him back for the WCF. Or maybe the Blazers will decide to just bust this thing open, take advantage of the Curry injury (they beat the Warriors earlier this season), and win one of the most unlikeliest titles in NBA history.
With all of the talk going on about all of these teams, my question is: What about Cleveland?
The Cavaliers have been a bit neglected as the only non-western conference contender, but that gives them an advantage. They were the favorites to come out of the East when the playoffs started, and that has grown more and more certain as the first round unfolds. Both the Celtics and Hawks have shown major warts in their series. The Heat went from being on fire (no pun intended) to stumbling a bit against the Hornets. And the Raptors, who everyone thought would be Cleveland’s top challenger, has looked far from impressive against the Pacers. The Cavs should be penciled in for June basketball.
There’s also the health factor. Last year, Cleveland made it two games from a championship, despite losing Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. This forced LeBron James to literally drag his squad to a Game 6 against a team that’s quickly grown into one of the best of all time; no small feat.
Now, they’re all healthy, Irving has been on fire, and Love has regained his confidence due to his stellar play in Round 1. The team has experimented with playing Love at center, something that could be a key lineup when winning matchups in the later round. They’ve gotten some great play out of Tristan Thompson, who’s become more of a factor. The same goes for Matthew Dellavedova, who is one of the more underrated point guard defenders in the league (something they really need with Irving as their starting PG).
And yet it seems like everyone is forgetting about LeBron, a man who has never been able to have the spotlight off him for more than a minute. For all of the internal issues that the Cavs have had, LeBron is still one of the best players in the world. In fact, the only man who can really challenge him for that title (Curry) will be on the sidelines for half a month, if not longer. Whenever you have the best player on the floor, you’re always going to have a chance.
Even though he’s lost a tiny step, James has been a monster, whether it’s scoring, rebounding, passing, or playing defense. He’s still the guy who can take his team to the highest level when he needs to. And in my opinion, he’s still the NBA’s best.
Sure, the Spurs have been LeBron’s kryptonite in the past. If Curry comes back for the finals, which seems likely (we’re all hoping), Golden State would obviously be a major roadblack as well. But in this topsy-turvey playoff season, don’t count out anything; and that includes the King and his men.