OAKLAND -- In retrospect, it's stunning how one of the great games in NBA Finals history turned into an unmitigated disaster in the course of a single overtime. Right up until the point when Kyrie Irving broke his kneecap we had been witnessing a classic confrontation between two teams competing at the highest level employing completely different strategies and tactics. Every nuance, wrinkle and factor that had been discussed ad nauseum over the week between the end of the conference finals and Game 1 seemed to play itself out during the course of 48 glorious minutes. And then it all went wrong.
Irving's injury hangs over these Finals like the fog that envelops the Bay. A number of peripheral storylines have emerged. One is that the Warriors' run is somehow tainted by facing a slate of injury weakened teams. They beat a Memphis team in the second round that was hampered by injuries to Tony Allen and Mike Conley. The Rockets squad they eliminated in five games was missing several key role players who didn't even make it to the postseason. Their path to the championship also allowed them to avoid an Oklahoma City Thunder team that wasn't able to withstand Kevin Durant's injury.
This is nonsense. There is never a need for an asterisk on a championship. Every successful team has been helped to some degree by injuries and good fortune. This also fails to take into account how well the Cavs responded to Kevin Love's absence, as well as Irving's during parts of their series' with Chicago and Atlanta. Of greater importance to Golden State right now is maintaining its edge.
"Yeah, the dynamics change," Warriors coach Steve Kerr acknowledged. "Obviously, in this case with Kyrie going out. But in any case where there is an injury and a key player goes out, it's not just what happens on the floor. It's how does the psyche change? That's something that the only way we can really address that is just reminding our guys they're still a great team. They won two games against Atlanta without Kyrie. They're still loaded with talent. They're going to be loose. Now all the spotlight is going to be on this injury and all that stuff. It can't affect us. We just go out and play and we've got to do our thing. We've got to worry about our own game. We can play a lot better. We know that. We didn't play particularly well in Game 1, so our focus is keep improving."
How will the Cavs adjust without Kyrie Irving?
•Golden State Of MindCoach Nick of BballBreakdown presented some ideas about how the Cavs can adjust to life after Kyrie Irving. But one of his past analyses of what LeBron James did without Irving against the Atlanta Hawks might give us a clearer idea of what we can expect during Sunday's Game 2.
Then there are the questions without answers: Should Irving have played that many minutes given the painful knee injury and foot problems that has plagued him throughout the postseason? Can the pro game itself survive the pounding of 82 games, plus two months of playoffs given the long list of players who have been sidelined or limited by injuries?
During his press conference before Game 1, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was asked about the litany of ailments that have felled star players and played havoc with the fortunes of contending teams. In his brief time as commissioner, Silver has shown to be a bold yet measured initiator of change. Some of his ideas, like lottery reform and tweaking the postseason seeding format, have been met with resistance from the other levers of power in the league. Silver is, by and large, guided by numbers and data as opposed to gut instinct. So on the question of injuries, he demurred.
"It's a great question," Silver said. "Our data doesn't go back that far at least to a point that it's really reliable in terms of games missed. But at least over a short period of time we don't see ‑‑ even versus last year, games missed is not greater than last year. In other words, the injury data isn't showing that this was a worse year in terms of injuries than last year."
There are some preventive measures already taking shape, such as overhauling the schedule to allow for more time off between regular season games and reducing the odious number of back-to-backs and four-games-in-five-days stretches. Silver pointed to a progressive reevaluation of monitoring players' health that takes place on a team-by-team level.
An obvious, although highly unlikely suggestion, is to reduce the amount of games entirely. The issue there is the league's revenue model is based on playing 82 games. Shortening the schedule would impact the bottom line for both players and teams. Short of bringing in a reverse witch doctor, what really can be done? Bones break, knees twist and ankles roll in this game.
The Cavs' role in this is trickier and loaded with emotion. Irving had been in and out of the lineup during the postseason. At times he seemed obviously limited. At others, particularly in Game 1 of the Finals, he looked like himself, which is to say one of the best players in the league. He was subbed out late in regulation, but returned to the court after a timeout and made a key block on Steph Curry that kept the game tied.
Cavs coach David Blatt said Saturday that there was no minutes restriction on Irving for Game 1 and that there wasn't one in Game 4 of the conference finals against the Hawks, although the team did want to limit the length of his rotations. Blatt added that those parameters were not in place for Game 1 of the Finals.
"My take on the injury was that he got kneed in the side of his knee," Blatt said. "It was a contact injury, and the result was a fracture of the kneecap."
Players are always questioned about their toughness in these instances, not just by fans and media but also by teammates, coaches and peers. It's a perilous situation when careers can end or be defined by one wrong fall.
"I could write a book about it," said Warriors center Andrew Bogut, who has battled multiple injuries throughout his career. "I sheared my whole right arm in that injury where I feel off the rim and it was a 12-month rehab. I came back in four months, I lost my touch and was playing like trash. People were like, ‘What's going on?' It is what it is. You've got to take the good with the bad. Same with the ankle. I played half a season with it and felt like a piece of butter. I couldn't move. Just day to day to get to a game was mind boggling. That's what you've got to go through. Sometimes people don't feel like it's as bad as it is."
Had the game not gone into overtime, Irving might have been ready for Game 2 instead of undergoing surgery with a 3-4 month recovery time frame. It's possible this would have happened later on in the series, or even during the summer. Injuries are the great unknown factor and no amount of progressive thinking or breakthroughs in medical science will ever be able to prevent them from happening. These are the idle thoughts of regret and loss. Judging body language and mood is always a dangerous game, but it wasn't hard to notice the vibe around the Cavaliers was decidedly downbeat and glum.
"It's a tough pill to swallow," LeBron James said. "Obviously, we've been in this situation, but we always knew at some point he'll come back. Knowing that he's out for the rest of the Finals and out for a period of a long time, first of all, it sucks for him personally. It's a huge blow for our team, especially at this stage."
The Finals go on without one of the game's emerging talents. In their short amount of time together, the Cavs have shown to be a resilient, even overachieving bunch. The Warriors have been planning for this moment all year, due in no small part to a relatively clean bill of health. It's a disservice to the players who remain to cast the entire enterprise on one awful moment in time. Yet Irving's absence weighs heavily over everything else that transpires.