When Cleveland made the decision to fire their head coach and replace him with assistant Ty Lue who they inked to a multi-year deal, instead of suffocating him with an interim label, they were announcing that this year would be Lue’s learning curve. If he got them to the Finals and lost, Lue wouldn’t be held responsible. If he got them to the Finals and won, Lue would be heroic and a Cleveland mainstay for the next two decades. If the Cavs lost in the Eastern Conference Finals, Lue would have an out. He didn’t coach a full year. The Cavs were not a team built in his image.
It was always a win-win situation for Lue, despite the glaring presence of one LeBron James.
It is the best part of the Cavs story as they head into the playoffs. Unlike Blatt the year before, Lue is emancipated. He is operating with a level of freedom and front office trust that Blatt never was afforded. Accordingly, Lue can speed up the tempo, he can slow it down. He can go small. He can go big. He can experiment with his rotation and the minutes, all the while trying to keep Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving’s head in the game while continuing to incentivize LeBron James. As far as coaches go, of the top-four seeds, only Lue and Gregg Popovich enter this postseason with minimal pressure.
The Cavs as a team, their players, that is an entirely different story as far as the cycloptic sized pressure hanging over their heads to deliver the Land to the Finals with a nice, neat bow. The Cavs inconsistency all season long has been camouflaged by the recent play of LeBron James who has been in playoff mode since March 5th. LeBron has played in 16 games and the Cavs are 12-4. They are 1-2 in games he hasn’t played in during that stretch.
In the home game against Houston, the Cavs blew a huge lead and Kyrie took 23 shots, making 9 of them, though he did have 8 assists. Far be it for me to point out the elephant in the room and how Kyrie dreams of a LeBron less team so he could be a star like Damian Lillard and Steph Curry. The facts are undeniable though. Before LeBron’s arrival, Kyrie led the Cavs to the lottery over and over again.
In that same Houston debacle of a game, Kevin Love took 14 shots and made 5 but he had 11 rebounds. Love is a much more complicated portrait on this Cavs team. A 20-10 guy in Minnesota, he’s been a shell of himself in Cleveland and looks like the short end of the stick in the Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota deal. Love has yet to fully embrace, accept and make peace with the third option calculus in a big three set. Love is just as passive-aggressive as James with his sarcasm and eye-rolls.
Chris Bosh was often mocked but the third wheel has to be the third wheel. He has to keep his mind in the game and come up with a big play when it matters the most, ala Miami vs. San Antonio and the Bosh rebound-kickout to Ray Allen to force a game 7.
Often, Love appears to be fighting Love. Playing with LeBron is easy if you are a role player but playing with LeBron is an adjustment if you are used to leading a bad team by yourself to a 30 win lottery season. Throughout history and the Big 3 concept, the third wheel had to be happy with the crumbs. He had to wait for his time. It always came.
James Worthy was MVP of the Finals in 1988, more dominant than Magic or Abdul-Jabaar. Robert Parish put up a 15-10 stat line in the Celtics second title of the 80’s. Chris Bosh made the LeBron legacy a little bit more palpatable by his heads up play to Ray Allen. If you are patient, it will come. If you like and trust your teammates, if the only thing that matters but a title, then you take the salt in the wound without a bunch of tears.
Can Ty Lue keep Kevin Love patient and optimistic even as this playoff run is going to trudge up the hill with Lebron front and center and everyone else revolving around him?
More than likely, it is the Pistons in the first round. Even though Andre Drummond is a match-up nightmare, this first time in the playoffs for everyone on the Pistons, save Reggie Jackson, will be more of a learning experience than a chance to actually beat the Cavs. Reggie Jackson couldn’t function in the Durant-Westbrook ecosystem, believing incorrectly he’s a star. This imaginary thinking will doom the Pistons as much as Jackson’s 43% shooting. The Pistons are a nice story. They are not constructed in their Van Gundy infancy to beat the Cavs.
It is the second round and a possible encore with the Heat that should have all Cavs fans on edge. The Heat have dominated the Cavs all year long. The atmosphere in Miami will be raucous to the point of hysterical and LeBron will have to have a performance similar to the NBA Finals because the Heat have match-up nightmares with Wade and Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow on defense, not to mention Eric Spoelstra creating multiple actions to neutralize LeBron because he knows his weaknesses.
The Raptors, if they make it that fair, and it’s a big if, will get a couple of home games off the Cavs but don’t have the front court to do damage to Cleveland, similarly to last year and the Hawks. The Cavs have the advantage even though the Raptors won the season series. Like the Pistons, they are inexperienced with the level of pressure the Eastern Conference Finals brings.
No one truly believes in their heart of hearts the Cavs won’t make a return trip to the Finals. LeBron is the NBA’s best player and when he gives 39 minutes of LeBron ball, the Cavs are unstoppable but only if everyone is on the same page, if they are buying into the LeBron system.
That is the Cavs X-factor. Has LeBron lost leverage in the locker room? Do his teammates trust him 100%?
photo via llananba