CLEVELAND -- In a Cleveland Cavaliers season that already felt like a human Whac-a-Mole game played out over the past five months –- as soon as one player would return another would seemingly go down -- Thursday's 91-83 win over the Utah Jazz was as absurd a night as any.
It started with good news for once, as Kevin Love made a surprise return to the lineup from the arthroscopic surgery to his left knee that caused him to miss the past four weeks. Not only was he getting back on the court two weeks before his original timetable for recovery, but a game or two earlier than his already accelerated return date that had been announced when Cavs general manager David Griffin said this week that Love wouldn't be back until the team's upcoming four-game trip.
"That's a good sign for us," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said before the game, singing a song on his way into his pregame news conference and whistling a separate tune on his way off the podium, clearly buoyed by having his big man back.
And in the early going, Love looked every bit like the All-Star he was before he had to have a loose body removed from his knee. He put up eight points on 4-for-5 shooting with three rebounds in the first quarter (while Utah's Rudy Gobert managed only two points and four rebounds) as Cleveland took a nine-point lead into the second quarter against a Jazz team that came into the night winners of six out of seven. Throw in J.R. Smith going 2-for-3 from 3 in the first quarter, looking every bit like the confident gunner he was before undergoing surgery on the thumb on his shooting hand, and it was finally, at long last, beginning to feel like a true starting point for Cleveland's title defense as the playoffs loom a month away.
It was such a sight for sore eyes that the absences of Kyle Korver (sore left foot) and Derrick Williams (right quad contusion) could be overlooked for the night.
This still was positive momentum. This still was the Cavs becoming whole.
But then Iman Shumpert, after trying to climb the "Stifle Tower" in Gobert for a dunk and then colliding with a Utah player on the other end, had to take himself out of the game late in the third quarter while favoring his left shoulder. It was diagnosed as a sprain and he did not return.
If that wasn't enough, Kyrie Irving, after scoring 21 points in 30 minutes through three quarters to extend his career-best streak of 17 straight games with 20-plus points, succumbed to the knee tightness he'd been feeling for the past 48 hours and held himself out of the fourth quarter too.
(He at least had the decency to run it by LeBron James. "I went to Bron and said, 'You got this?' " Irving shared. "He said, 'Yeah.' ")
What ensued was another masterful night from James as he personally outscored the Jazz 17-16 in the fourth quarter to finish with 33 points on 13-for-20 shooting, 10 rebounds and six assists in his continued underrated MVP campaign.
What was lost was a chance for the Cavs to have all their best players play together at the same time. That hasn't happened yet this season, really. And with only 15 games left before the playoffs begin, it's starting to become disconcerting because Cleveland will also be looking to mix in rest for its stars in that time frame to save their legs for another postseason trek.
Including Thursday night, Cavs players had missed 112 games because of injury this season. According to Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com, a website that tracks NBA injuries, only two teams since Stotts started compiling data in 2005-06 missed more games because of injury in the regular season and went on to win the championship: the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 (171 regular-season games lost) and the Miami Heat in 2006 (170 games lost).
"I mean, the only thing is you control what you can control," James said. "Obviously we wish we can be whole, but it's out of our hands right now. We have a great training staff who make sure guys are getting the proper treatment to get back on the floor. Until then, who is in the lineup is who is in the lineup."
That last statement is a modified version of "we got what we got," the phrase James used after Lue and Griffin addressed him following his call for a revamped roster following a loss to New Orleans in late January, and he eased off the gas pedal.
The roster upgrades have been made, from Derrick Williams to Deron Williams, to the Larry Sanders replacement for Andrew Bogut after he was the replacement for Chris Andersen, to the returns of Love and Smith.
While seeing Shumpert and Irving go out felt jarring, both of them are "fine," according to Lue. Shumpert is day to day and Irving could play as soon as the Cavs' next game Saturday night at the Clippers.
Maybe the Cavs finally will get healthy after all.
"Right now we're just having to mix and match and try to figure it out," Lue said. "With Kyrie and Shump not being serious, Kev working his way back and Korver being close, these last 12-13 games we can finally start figuring out our rotation and who's going to play, who's going to play with who. I think that will make things a lot better. I'm just excited about that."