When Kevin Love first joined the Cleveland Cavaliers, much was made of it. One of the league’s premier stat-stuffers, even boasting a 30-point, 30-rebound outburst in Minnesota, Cleveland’s squad finally looked stacked.
For the first time in years, there would be a quality player playing alongside city hero LeBron James, one who could rebound and score with the best of them.
Fast-forward to this year’s finals.
Yes, the Cavs steam-rolled through a dilapidated Eastern Conference, but that’s no real measuring scale for the quality of their team. The Finals was going to be their first real test; their first chance to prove the story of only losing the championship the previous year due to the lack of both Love and Kyrie Irving.
Game 1 was a blow out loss. Game 2 was much of the same. Game 3? A whole different story.
The difference? No Love.
Now, to be fair, the Cavs have been nearly unstoppable at home. The crowd tossed some energy their way and the Quicken Loans Arena breeds a warming sense of familiarity, so it’d be factually incorrect to say 100 percent of the reason the Cavs won was because Love wasn’t in the game.
However, it’s clear his absence from the game was tangible… in a good way.
During his time in Cleveland, Love has been, to both Cavaliers coaches David Blatt and Tyronn Lue’s faults, relegated to an overpaid three-point shooter. Credit to Lue, he’s recently begun throwing him some post-up opportunities, reminiscent of his dominating times in a Timberwolves jersey.
The results aren’t the same though. Nowhere close, in fact.
Love has slimmed down significantly and can’t necessarily bang in the paint with the best of them like he used to. Against the Warriors, one of the best defensive units in the league due to quick rotations and studs in Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, Love is having trouble holding his own.
And that’s just the story on the offensive side of the ball. Love’s lack of defense has gotten as much attention as it is horrid.
Simply put, Love isn’t the player he used to be offensively and isn’t talented enough on the defensive side of the ball to give his team a puncher’s chance at winning this series.
The amount of touches he commands due to his high salary and reputation from years past, however, isn’t representative of that.
James and Irving tend to have to go against their natural way of playing, against their natural flow, in order to find Love and appease him. He eats up space and quite frankly, seems to be more of a liability and flow-stopper than an actual benefit to the Cavs. Starting in place of Love, Richard Jefferson dropped 9 points and pulled down 8 boards.
While this isn’t anything exactly eye-popping, the power forward by committee approach seemed to serve Cleveland well during the course of the game. Jefferson brought an immediate upgrade defensively and brought energy, hustle and play-making to the court for the Cavs, while extended minutes for Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov brought a whole different tone and meaning to Cavaliers basketball.
Strong, defensive basketball. That’s the formula to compete with the Warriors, not 2/5 of your starting lineup (Irving and Love) playing subpar defense and allowing the Warriors to pick them apart.
With Love being concussed, Irving was left to be the only sub-par defender on the court. Shumpert and J.R. Smith are an above average defensive duo on the perimeter, playing their respective parts in making things tough on reigning MVP Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
Game 3 looked good for the Cavs. Great, in fact.
Now, the onus is on Lue.
Do you do the what’s worked and bench Love, if not for the entirety of the game then only for when James and Irving are on the court? Or do you go back to what you’ve been doing and play him his normal minutes?
Without Love playing in Game 3, the Cavaliers looked like a whole new and a much improved team.
It’s time for Lue to stick with the formula and severely limit, if not altogether slash, Love’s playing time.
The pursuit of the Larry O’Brien Trophy stands above all else, and this is how the Cavaliers can significantly up their chances of nabbing it.
*Featured Photo (above) credit to USA TODAY Sports