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Cavaliers can’t help but think about what could’ve been

By CHRIS FEDOR • Mar 15, 2019 at 1:00 PM

ORLANDO, Fla. — Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Larry Drew had a conversation with assistant Mike Longabardi.

It wasn’t about strategy — how to deal with Orlando Magic All-Star Nikola Vucevic on a night the Cavaliers were without Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. It wasn’t even about keys to beating the Magic for the second time in less than two weeks. It was something completely different, reflecting on what could have been this season if not for a lengthy list of injuries that sent Cleveland spinning before ever getting a real shot to gain traction.

“I think about it,” Drew said prior to Thursday’s 120-91 loss at Orlando. “I mentioned that to Longabardi this morning. Had we had a healthy Kevin (Love) at the beginning and healthy Tristan at the beginning, a healthy club, I’m not saying we might be in a playoff hunt or anything like that, but what if?

“That’s neither here nor there. We certainly see what we’re capable of when we do have Kevin Love. Would have been nice to see where we would have been had we been a healthy team.”

Drew isn’t the only one thinking that. Jordan Clarkson admitted the guys talk about it “a lot,” especially given the success they’ve had since Love’s return.

“It is what it is right now. Can’t go back on nothing,” Clarkson said. “That’s why right now we’re just trying to show what we can do. We are playing playoff-contending teams and we’re right there in the game with them or winning games against them, competing. A lot there to say and a lot of growth from everybody.”

The Cavs are 5-6 since the All-Star break. That’s the same number of wins as Golden State, Oklahoma City, Toronto, Indiana and Denver during that time.

Improbable victories against Orlando and Toronto have boosted their collective confidence. They’ve shown fight against Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Portland and Miami before fading late. In games Love has logged double-digit minutes, the Cavs are 6-4.

So what does it all mean?

“After the All-Star break I think we gave everybody a message that we’re going to be a good team, that we’re not going to give up,” Cedi Osman said. “Whenever we have a game, we’re going to be there to play for 48 minutes, to play tough and after All-Star break I think we improved a lot. I think teams are respecting us. I mean, they have to. If not, then we’re going to give them some trouble. They better.”

It’s ironic that these thoughts came to light in Orlando. After all, the Magic are one of a handful fighting for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot — where the Cavs wanted to be at the start of the season, where they thought they would be.

But their downfall came early. Love needed surgery on an achy toe after just four games. A short time later, the Cavs fired head coach Tyronn Lue, replacing him with Drew who has been a better guide for this particular group. Then came a handful of trades, more injuries, extended losing streaks and stretches where the Cavs needed to use G Leaguers to fill out the rotation.

Given those circumstances, Cleveland didn’t have much of a chance. Love was the player they couldn’t lose.

With him on the floor the Cavs have an offensive rating of 117.6. When he’s off, the number drops to 106.4. Since the All-Star break, the Cavs are outscoring opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions with Love, but outscored by 10.5 points without him. Over the last nine games, Love is averaging 20.9 points and 11.9 rebounds. He has a double-double in six of the last eight.

“We do have fight in us. You can look at the situation and they can say, ‘You guys are not going to the playoffs so what are you playing for?’ I think our guys recognize that they are going to continue to play hard and they will play with pride,” Drew said. “Every night we step in between those lines I challenge them go out there and compete and compete at a high level. Yeah, we know we’re not going to the playoffs. But I still think we have a lot at stake. More than anything, teaching these guys that in this position, you remain professional. I think we’ve done that.”

In a way, this mini-stretch is validating what they once believed possible. It’s their way of showing a better-than-expected future. Drew believes the young players will benefit greatly from this experience. It will make them stronger, better equipped to handle impending adversity.

Who knows? Maybe the Cavs will carry a renewed sense of belief into the 2019-20 season, using it as a springboard.

“Had we been healthy we would have been able to make some noise,” Love said. “Talked about that earlier in the season or right before the season started. I really do think that had we started putting things together and had we had our guys out there we potentially could’ve made some noise in the East and competed for a playoff spot.”

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