Injuries, time become Cavs' worst enemies with clock ticking on regular season

2018-03-13 | Akron Beacon Journal

LOS ANGELES _ Before the trade deadline, it felt as if poor chemistry, players who were bad fits and some underperforming regulars would spell an early playoff end for the Cavaliers.

Now their enemies are injuries and time.

Even with the air cleared by three trades that sent out six players and brought in four, even with the infusion of energy from three 25-year-olds, the clock is ticking _ both on putting things together for a 38-28 team that on Sunday fell to fourth in the East, just three games out of the eighth and final playoff spot, and perhaps on LeBron James' second stint in Cleveland.

In Sunday's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center, the Cavs were without forwards Rodney Hood (low back strain), Cedi Osman (left hip strain) and Kevin Love (broken left hand) and center Tristan Thompson (sprained right ankle). Thompson is at least a week away from returning, Osman two, Love perhaps longer than that, while Hood is day-to-day. And guard Kyle Korver is playing on a bruised right foot that has been bothering him for more than a week.

"I think we're just missing some smiles out there on the court right now," Korver said. "It feels very serious. We're just kind of slugging it out. It'll help once we get some healthy bodies back. And there's not a lot of time, for sure."

The locker room was quiet, the players escaping quickly, the answers for the most part short from those willing to talk.

Reality has slapped them in the face. The regular season ends on April 11. Coach Tyronn Lue has been forced to integrate players coming off injuries all season and the staggered nature of those returns made it hard for Lue to settle on his rotations. If and when the Cavs are whole, it's not like he's suddenly going to have all the answers, even though he's pondering the possibilities now.

Especially when he's still in the simplifying stage when it comes to teaching the newcomers the offensive sets and defensive schemes.

The Cavs don't have an idea of what they're capable of or the strengths of the remade team. The only thing that seems obvious is the current healthy roster consists of James and a cast of role players, although that label fits center Larry Nance Jr. largely because he's 6-foot-9. Hurt on Jan. 30, Love hasn't played with trade acquisitions George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson or Nance.

Nance's backup is Ante Zizic, the lone bright spot on Sunday with a career-high 15 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots. The last player remaining from the Kyrie Irving trade save for Brooklyn's 2018 first-round pick, Zizic has made great strides in the G League and from the tutelage of big man coach Vitaly Potapenko.

"It's hard to gauge because we just have so many guys out," Korver said. "We're so low on big men right now. When we're small, they're just kind of switching everything on us and there's not a lot of movement out there for us. That's what makes basketball fun is when the ball is moving, bodies are moving and hopping."

From the outside, it appears the Cavs have so few healthy players that the minute demand will eventually take its toll.

"I think physically we're OK," Korver said. "I think mentally it's easy to get tired right now. It's been a grind of a year. We've got to find ways to stay fresh, you've got to find ways to fill your cup. We're all different and we all have to find our own way to do that."

James said Sunday that injuries are his main concern.

"You want to get the most from whoever is playing, but sometimes you can't overcome this many injuries," he said. "We have pretty much five guys out of our top nine or top 10 of our rotation not playing because of injuries. It's next man up, but sometimes you just fall short."

Presumably the fifth is Korver, who has averaged 21.9 minutes in six March games despite the foot issue.

The Cavs fell to 1-2 on their six-game road trip with games remaining in Phoenix, Portland and Chicago. They lost to the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, who are eighth and 11th, respectively, in the Western Conference standings.

The frontcourt injuries are not the only problem _ the backcourt is struggling.

Against the Lakers, starting guards J.R. Smith and Hill combined for 12 points and shot 5-for-15 (1-for-7 by Smith) from the field.

Smith is averaging 8.3 points, second-lowest of his career, 7.7 since the All-Star Game, 8.6 in March and 7.5 per game in losses.

Hill has scored 10.5 points since the break, 8.8 in March and 9.5 in losses. His average in 12 games with the Cavs is 10.3.

At the moment, it doesn't seem like the Cavs' postseason run will last long with their starting guards combining for 18.6 points per game. And while the Cavs have two open roster spots, owner Dan Gilbert's luxury tax bill is so high that it's not likely they will be filled. That means more playing time for John Holland, London Perrantes and Jose Calderon, whose defense Lue said Isaiah Thomas exploited for 20 points Sunday.

Unless Smith, Hill, Clarkson or Jeff Green suddenly find a deadly shooting stroke, it looks like the feast-or-famine season may leave the Cavs starved for smiles for a while longer.

"I know, I know. It's like black or white. There's no in-between," said Korver, who grew up in Pella, Iowa. "But in Iowa we'd say, 'There might be a little drought right now, but when it rains it's going to pour.' We'll hold onto that.

"Right now it feels a little low and a little dry. Hopefully it'll turn soon and we'll be in a good way once the playoffs start."


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