2018 Playoffs | East Finals: Celtics (2) vs. Cavaliers (4)

How will Cleveland Cavaliers adjust in Game 7 without Kevin Love?

Veteran NBA scout, longtime assistant coach explains game plan for Cleveland

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

* Tonight on ESPN: Game 7, Cavaliers vs. Celtics (8:30 ET)

BOSTON – No Love for LeBron in Boston.

So what else is new?

OK, so this time there is a difference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are back facing not merely an unwelcoming attitude but a personnel crisis.

Kevin Love, All-Star forward and the Cavs’ generally acceded second-best player since Kyrie Irving switched sides in this heated Eastern Conference rivalry, was placed in the NBA’s concussion protocol Saturday and has been ruled out of Game 7 of the East finals Sunday night at TD Garden (8:30 ET, ESPN).

On paper, stripping away Cleveland’s top rebounder (9.8 per game) and second-leading scorer (12.5) from an elimination game would seem to deal a severe blow to his team’s shot at winning and reaching a fourth consecutive NBA Finals.

On parquet, maybe not so much.

Love shot 37.5 percent overall and made only seven of his 26 3-point attempts in the series’ first six games. Per NBA.com/stats, he had a net rating of minus-7.4, the amount by which Cleveland has been outscored by Boston per 100 possessions.

From the timeout that followed Love’s head-to-head collision with Boston forward Jayson Tatum to the game’s end three-and-a-half quarters later, the Cavaliers outscored the Celtics 103-89.

It would be folly to suggest that not having Love long term would be a gain for Cleveland or any other team for which he might play. But short term? There were signs in Game 6 Friday that Love being held out from Game 7 might be a net gain for the Cavaliers at both ends of the court.

Once the 6-foot-10 power forward headed back to the locker room at Quicken Loans Arena, coach Tyronn Lue’s player rotation and tactics changed. Backup forward Jeff Green, who had averaged 22.6 minutes and 5.6 points in the first five games, logged 31 and scored 14 Friday. Green will start in place of Love in Game 7 on Sunday.

Larry Nance, another backup, scored 10 points with seven rebounds, including 6 and 4 in the fourth quarter. Point guard George Hill, aware that his role in the offense suddenly had been dialed up, responded by scoring 20 points. His backup, Jordan Clarkson, had been a cipher in the series but chipped in six points and five rebounds.

Defensively, where Love’s lack of quickness undercuts his want-to, the Cavaliers were more mobile and capable of switching assignments or double-teaming and covering for it. The Celtics tried to attack Love whenever they can, which is why Lue turned to Tristan Thompson as the guy to cover and slow Boston’s playmaking big, Al Horford. Now, no individual Cavs defender has a target on his back like that. That’s a challenge for Celtics coach Brad Stevens and his staff.

For a sense of how this all might play out in Game 7, NBA.com talked with a veteran advance scout and a longtime assistant coach about what they anticipated with Love out. Here is the coach’s assessment:

“It’s going to allow Cleveland to play smaller, longer. [Normally] you’ve got to give Love his minutes, right? Now that he’s not in there, you give them to somebody else. Maybe 10 more for Hill, maybe five more for Green, five more for Jordan Clarkson. Maybe it works for you, matching up size-wise. LeBron at four is tougher for them to deal with.

“I’m trying not to crush Love. But if they’ve got LeBron at four, Thompson’s played well at five, they look comfortable in what they’re doing, having the ability to switch. Nance is a winning player. What works in the playoffs is multiple ball handlers, multiple decision-makers. Cleveland might be adding another ball handler, another decision-maker. That could create a problem for the Celtics.

“I think it puts Boston in more of a bind to figure out how they’re going to guard them small for 48 instead of 18 [minutes]. There’s some unknown there, and that’s difficult at this time of the year. But I’m sure Boston is looking at the film from when Love has been out [of the game] and how they’ve rotated and what their sub pattern was.”

Cleveland won big in Boston in February, 121-99, when Love was out with a fractured hand. Otherwise the Cavs were 12-10 in games Love missed.

The strict home-and-home adherence of this series and the Celtics’ 10-0 mark at the Garden this postseason may matter little, set against the Game 7 backdrop.

Here is the scout’s report:

“Can they win there? Sure they can. But they’ve got to get a helluva game from everybody. Cuz Boston plays so well at home. But it’s conceivable because they played so well Friday [after Love got hurt]. And the rotation’s at seven anyway. So which seven?

“LeBron shot the ball so well, he covered for everything. Can he do it again? And can George Hill do it again on the road? Larry Nance, they need some sort of contribution from him again.

“There are always long rebounds that you’ve got to come up with. Or 50-50 balls – the big buzzword – where you can’t get overwhelmed on that. Even if you’re 50-50 on 50-50 balls, you’re at least in the game.

“That one guy’s pretty good still. I’d never doubt that guy. He’s broken my heart, I can tell you that.”

James has a personal mark of 6-2 in Game 7s, and the most recent time he tackled one on the road was at the end of the 2016 Finals. He won that one, but with Irving making the clutch shot and Love standing strong late in a defensive stop of Steph Curry.

Those guys will be in street clothes and of no value at all this time, replaced by helpers of lesser repute. Someone might, someone might not. Doesn’t change the fact that the onus is on “that guy.”

“I don’t put too much added pressure on myself,” said James, who already has scored 40 points or more in seven of the Cavaliers’ 17 playoff games, including two buzzer-beaters. “I know what I’m capable of doing, and I’m going to trust everything I put into it.”

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