Orbiting Cleveland: Cavaliers should still be favored against Bulls

For all intents and purposes, the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals begin tonight when the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls meet for the first game of their seven-game series.

Yes, technically, it’s only an Eastern Conference Semifinal contest, and technically, the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks are still playing as well, but this series is the match-up of the conference’s two top teams. That was the case before the season started, and that remains the case today.

This will not be easy. In fact, many pundits have already gone ahead and labeled the Cavaliers as underdogs in this series. That’s what happens when a team loses its third-leading scorer to shoulder surgery and its starting shooting guard faces a two-game suspension.

Without Kevin Love, the Cavaliers are a definitively different team. While his numbers on the season were down (16.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game), Love made a colossal impact. His presence alone did wonders with regard to floor spacing as teams were forced to respect his ability to knock down open shots, which then opened lanes for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. When you then factor in Love’s rebounding ability, which the team simply cannot replace, it’s clear that the Cavaliers are facing a big-time loss.

This issue has only been compounded by the loss of J.R. Smith, who faces a two-game ban after he laid out the Boston Celtic’s Jae Crowder with a backhand in game four of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Smith’s reputation as a somewhat dirty player preceded him joining the Cavaliers in a mid-season trade, but the truth is he could not have chosen a worse time to return to his old antics. The Cavaliers are suddenly severely undermanned as the team prepares for its biggest series in five years.

Even knowing all that, I still think the Cavaliers find a way to come out of this series victorious. I also believe they will still represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. It might be a stretch, but if they’re able to get past the Bulls, then one has to believe they would be the heavy favorites in the proceeding series.

While things are now dire, there are still positives. Yes, Smith will miss two games, but at least those two games will be home games for the Cavaliers.  His marksmenship could prove vital later in games three and four as nothing would silence a hot Chicago crowd like a dagger from three-point range. His absence still hurts, and games one and two will be a challenge, but given his track record, it could have been much worse.

Rather than focusing on what the team doesn’t have, consider what they do have. Start with James, the all-around best basketball player on the planet. Chicago has one helluva roster, but no player has the skillset or postseason track record that James brings to the table. He’s been to four-straight NBA Finals, and there’s a reason for that.

Couple James with Irving, and it’s clear that the Cavaliers still possess the best one-two scoring punch in the Eastern Conference. On so many occasions, he has proven that no moment is too big for him, and you have to believe he’s relishing this opportunity.

Aside from those two though, the Cavaliers still have a valuable contingent of players capable of matching up with the Bulls. It will be very difficult to compensate for Love’s rebounding ability, but with Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, the Cavaliers have the ability to change this into a defensive game. We likely won’t be seeing any of the gaudy offensive numbers that we have seen in spurts from this club. Instead, the Cavs will have to transform into a defense-first team. It’s not going to always be pretty, but it is going to be the best way to attack Chicago.

With Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, the Bulls have plenty of ways to attack a team. Joakim Noah’s presence ensures they have plenty of ways to piss a team off as well.

Dealing with those players will be challenge, which is why Mozgov and Thompson will be so important. The trio of Noah, Gasol and Butler gives Chicago a distinct rebounding advantage in this series, especially with Love out. Thompson and Mozgov will be forced to play gritty defense and compete for every board.

It’s also a likely reason why we could see Thompson slide into the starting power forward spot in Love’s absence. Plain and simple, there will be times when Cleveland will want Thompson on the court alongside Mozgov just to keep up with Chicago.

Mozgov will likely also play a key role with regard to rim protection. Remember, even with Love, the Cavaliers sputtered to a 19-16 start before acquiring Mozgov on January 7. The catalyst for this team’s turnaround wasn’t James, Irving or Love — it was Mozgov. Series like this are why the Cavaliers traded for him, and you better believe he will be doing everything he can to clog the lane and make things difficult for Rose and Butler.

Veterans such as James Jones, Shawn Marion and Mike Miller are going to need to step up as well. As the team’s rotation started to take shape, Marion and Miller seemed to become afterthoughts, but they’ll be needed here. Marion’s defense could prove to be a crucial component and someone, be it Jones or Miller, is going to have knock down shots. It’s likely that Jones and Miller will see plenty of open looks, so they need to take advantage of those opportunities; they could end up being huge factors in all of this.

Above all else though, the Cavaliers still have James, and his comments in recent days prove that he still has all the faith in his team’s ability. Pundits have labeled the Cavaliers weak after they “struggled” against the No.7-seed Celtics. But did they? Sure, the games were a bit grittier than we expected, but they still won the series in four games. Did they look any worse than Chicago did against Milwaukee? What about Atlanta against Brooklyn?

The point is that there is no team in the Eastern Conference that is without flaws. However, the team I’m willing bet my money on is the one that has LeBron James on its roster.
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About Steve Orbanek

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