Kevin Love sat sidelined with a dislocated shoulder when his Cleveland Cavaliers first met the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals two years ago. He missed more time in last year’s rematch with a concussion and saw his minutes dwindle to just 12 by Game 6, as coach Tyronn Lue opted for 35-year-old Richard Jefferson in smaller lineups with Tristan Thompson at center.
Cleveland’s success with LeBron James playing power forward had many believing Love was expendable at last season’s end, never more so than when the Cavs beat the Warriors by 30 with Love on the bench in Game 3 of the 2016 Finals. Even Love conceded in the moment, “I’ve been asked to be the … third guy most nights. It hasn’t been the easiest transition in the world.”
Love faced years of questions about his fit with the Cavs and whether they could contend with him in the fold, and then changed the narrative in an instant. He played 12 seconds of lockdown defense opposite Stephen Curry — one of the game’s best ball-handlers and undoubtedly its greatest shooter — as the unanimous MVP searched the 3-point line for a game-tying shot in the final minute of Game 7. Curry’s shot sailed wide, Love was a champion and all was forgiven.
Playing third fiddle isn’t so bad when you’re making $20 million, attending a parade and no longer answering questions about why you’re not the same player the Cavs thought they were getting when they traded for you in 2014. Suddenly, that uneasy transition fades and comfort sets in.
“It doesn’t matter to me if I’m getting five shots or 25 shots, I just want to win,” Love said of his evolution from a year ago. “I know I can impact the game whether it shows up in the stat sheet or not. I think that has allowed me to be comfortable out there on the floor, knowing my mindset is really there, still being aggressive and making plays, whether those are showing up or not. But just having all these guys’ back and being there for them is huge, and I embrace that.”
So, when Love grabbed his lower back in Game 4 of last week’s Eastern Conference finals, massaging the spot where spasms forced him to miss time in late January and early February, for a fleeting moment the question came full circle: Can the Cavs win a title without Kevin Love?
Love, of course, remained in the game, totaling 17 points, 17 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal in the 112-99 come-from-behind win over the Boston Celtics. That performance was still overshadowed by Kyrie Irving’s 42-point explosion and LeBron’s 34-6-5 line despite playing the entire second half with four fouls. But the Cavaliers most likely head back to Boston tied 2-2 without Kevin Love.
There are few, if any, players who have adapted to the stretch big position as smoothly as Love. Ryan Anderson might be more of a sharpshooter, and Draymond Green may defend the rim better, but nobody can space the floor and bang bodies on the boards quite like Love. Of the Cavs and Warriors still standing, Love owns the highest playoff percentage in rebounding (19.3) and 3-point shooting (47.5), at least among those who attempted more than three 3s.
He made 23 of his 43 3-point attempts in the conference finals, posting a double-double in each game and averaging 22.6 points and 12.4 boards for the series. On the surface, it sure seems like this isn’t the same Love who everyone had penciled in for a trade this time last year.
But his numbers through last year’s conference finals (17.3 points on 44.6 percent 3-point shooting, 9.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game) are awfully similar to his playoff stats so far in 2017 (17.2 points on 47.5 percent 3-point shooting, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game). The question is whether Love can replicate anything close to that production against the Warriors after averaging 7.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game against Golden State in the 2016 Finals.
The Love-Thompson frontcourt combo is a plus-119 through 345 minutes of this year’s playoffs — not far off from how they performed together in last spring’s Finals (plus-23 in 106 minutes). But the Cavs have found a playoff weapon against the East this year — Love at center (plus-68 in 70 minutes) — that didn’t work against Golden State a year ago (minus-11 in 49 minutes). Lue plugged a hole in this year’s bench by leaving Love on the floor with the second unit.
“Just to give us a post presence in the second unit, and then also give us another passer. Having LeBron, [Deron Williams] and Kevin on the floor to give us an additional passer when we run different actions is good for us,” Lue said of swapping Channing Frye for Love. “Rebounding is what hurt us with our second unit a little bit. When we finally did get a stop, we couldn’t get the rebound. With Kevin out there, it gives us a better rebounding presence at the five.”
Love’s rebounding also comes with this: “He’s the best outlet guy in the league,” said Lue.
By leveraging Love’s aggressiveness in the post, on the glass and in transition, the Cavaliers are finally maximizing the talents that made him a three-time All-Star on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“We want the mentality of Kevin from Minnesota, but his usage rate doesn’t have to be as high as Minnesota,” James said after Love dropped 32 and 12 in Game 1 against Boston. “Obviously we all know that he was a featured guy pretty much every possession going down the floor, and here that’s changed a little bit because we have other guys. But his mentality needs to stay the same as Minnesota.”
That means forming a two-headed rebounding monster alongside Thompson to take advantage of one of Golden State’s few weaknesses, spacing the floor against bigger defenders and hammering smaller ones in the post, where Love again has been of the most effective players in these playoffs.
Another interesting Love wrinkle in 2017: While the Cavs were 5.8 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Love on the floor in the 2016 postseason, Cleveland’s D is 6.7 points per 100 better with Love in these playoffs. That Curry stop must’ve really boosted his confidence. Either that, or Love has finally gotten the rotations down after three years of playing with LeBron.
“Any time you’re getting touches and getting shots, your defense is always better because you feel more involved in the game,” Lue said in the conference finals. “Kevin has been strong for us defensively all year. His ‘shows’ [against the pick-and-roll] have been really good. He’s rebounding the basketball. Defensively in the Indiana and Toronto series, he was really good. And then now in [the Boston] series, he’s starting to shoot the ball, getting touches and scoring. It’s been great.”
But the Warriors are a different animal. They’ve made a meal out of the league with Draymond at center, and Golden State’s All-NBA forward feasted on Love in last year’s title series, anchoring lineups that outscored the Cavs by 8.6 points per 100 possessions opposite his All-Star counterpart — to the point Lue all but benched Love for Jefferson in the Game 6 win.
Those numbers were a tick worse with Love playing opposite Green in two meetings this season, but that’s skewed by Golden State’s 35-point blowout in January. During their Christmas Day thriller, Lue sat Thompson for the entire fourth quarter, riding Love at the center spot as the Cavs erased a 14-point lead in the final 9:35 to catch the Warriors at the last second, 109-108.
The Cavaliers have allowed 6.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with Love on the floor in these playoffs — not exactly the 17.5-per-100 improvement Golden State has experienced with Draymond, but a significant upgrade from last year, when Cleveland’s defense improved by almost six points per 100 possessions without Love in the playoffs. Quite simply, this isn’t the same player.
A year removed from the biggest defensive possession of his career, Kevin Love is at ease. Whether or not he can stay comfortable against Green might prove the X-factor this time around, and that’s not something anybody would have imagined entering the 2016 Finals.
“At least as far as Bron and Kyrie go, [I’m] just filling in the blanks and just trying to help wherever I can,” said Love. “More than anything, being in a mindset for me and a mindset for this team that I mentioned, locking in and being a part of something special. We know we’re at the cusp of that. We’re only four games away from our goal, but that’s all got to start Thursday. For me, I just want to play my part as best I can. We’ll be ready to go on Thursday.”
Kevin Love finally found himself in Cleveland. Now, the Cavaliers can’t afford to lose him.
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