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Playoffs suit Love perfectly

Cavaliers forward, along with James, Irving have not missed a beat in 14 postseason games they have played together

POSTED: May 20, 2016 9:21 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Kevin Love, right, says the Cavaliers' on and off court chemistry is '100 percent genuine' and has helped team to achieve a perfect run so far this postseason.

— Michael Jordan lost the first NBA playoff game he ever played. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dropped his second, as did Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan and LeBron James. Kobe Bryant and Jerry West went down in their third postseason appearances, and even the great Bill Russell only made it to his fourth before he and the Boston Celtics came up short.

Kevin Love is 14-0 in the playoffs.

Maybe if the Cleveland Cavaliers' power forward had known this postseason business was going to be such a snap, he might have hurried up and gotten to it sooner. Then again, if NBA teams had known how well Love would do once he dipped his toe into postseason waters, they might have done more to help him get here before he had logged 439 games in seven regular seasons.

Love's perfect playoff mark spans last spring and this. He was 4-0 a year ago, playing in the sweep of the Boston before suffering a season-ending shoulder dislocation in the first quarter of that series' finale. Now Love, along with his teammates, is 10-0 this spring after the Cavs' sweeps of Detroit and Atlanta and their 2-0 edge over Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals.

Only two players in NBA history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, ever appeared in more consecutive victories from the start of their playoff careers. Forward Mark Madsen strung together a 16-0 record in the Los Angeles Lakers' 2001 and 2002 playoffs, and big man Scott Williams appeared in 15 victories for the Chicago Bulls in 1991 and 1992 before playing in a loss.

Both those guys were reserves who didn't play every night for their teams, so their streaks were a little more coach-dependent and flukey. Love's only asterisk is that he was hurt when Cleveland got taken to six games in the conference semifinals (Chicago) and The Finals (Golden State).

Love Delivers

LeBron James dishes the sweet pass to Kevin Love who finishes with the layup.

"You can tell I haven't even thought about it," an amused Love told this week after a workout at the Cavaliers' practice facility. "I've been going game by game. Had I played [the final three rounds] last year, maybe something would have been different. You always have tough games in the Finals, so something might have been different there. But we played some really good teams last year. This year, we just happen to be sticking with it and fighting through."

Love's unblemished mark happens to fit like a nesting doll within a similar one for Cleveland's Big Three. As a unit, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Love are 14-0 as well. That one seems more significant, an outgrowth of the Cavs' blueprint and an indication of where they're headed this time. The trio is combining for 66.7 points, 21.7 rebounds and 14.8 assists per playoff game.

Regardless of the opposition they've faced -- and the overmatched Raptors are getting a lot of disrespect heading into Game 3 Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) -- the Cavaliers keep beating the teams in front of them. Do that six more times and there'll be dreams coming true.

"I think there's a sense of purpose now," Love said. "We have our identity. And we also know that because of last year [injuries to Irving and Iman Shumpert, as well as Love], things can be taken away from you at any time."

For Love the biggest difference between playoff basketball and that regular-season variety to which he was limited in six seasons with Minnesota is the urgency.

"Every play really does matter," said Love, who made it to three All-Star games before ever helping a team reach the playoffs. "Plays in the first, second, third quarters that can change the ball game in the fourth. Everything counts. One bad defensive play. A technical foul [or a flagrant] where they get the ball back and hit a three. Things that, in the regular season, you might be able to brush off. Here you have to really stick with it."

Love said he has embraced the physical nature of the postseason, too, and he's reminded himself to attack the offensive boards, rather than floating from his spots around the perimeter.

"I've had a mentality where I want to hit first," said Love, who takes enough punishment -- shoulder "stingers" in particular -- to unnerve some Cleveland fans. "It's going to get chippy. Both teams want to win so bad. You definitely remember [hard fouls]. But whether it's a success or failure, you have to handle it quickly and get on to the next play."

Where Love's head and game are at now, there's been nothing quick about that. Cavs insiders will tell you the 27-year-old is more comfortable with his role, his teammates, his overall basketball lot in life than at any previous point. Twenty-one months after being traded from Minnesota to give James a new, northeast-Ohio edition of a Big Three, 10 months since otherwise committing to Cleveland by signing a five-year, $113 million contract, Love fits the Cavs and they fit him.

The turning point came in late March, when Love scored 11 points on 5-of-14 shooting in a dismal loss in Brooklyn. Coach Tyronn Lue, less than two months on the job as David Blatt's replacement, sought Love out and gave him a rather direct pep talk.

It was a challenge to assert himself, to again play like the double-double machine he had been with the Timberwolves and to trust that, if he got position in the post, Lue would make sure the other Cavs got the basketball to him.

Love's part in the bargain? Get busy in the moment.

"[Lue] wanted to make sure I wasn't wishing away the time until the playoffs started," he said. "When we played Brooklyn, I was looking ahead and living in the future because I wanted so bad to be in this [playoff] position already. But he reminded me to take this time to pick your spots, take your shots, lock in on the defensive end and become a better player the last three or four weeks.

"That really helped me. And as a team we got a lot better."

Cleveland continues as a work in progress -- and will remain so until there's a Larry O'Brien trophy in their grasp -- but it looks to need finishing touches more than breakthrough moves. The trust level that seems deeper overall goes double for Love, who wasn't always confident Blatt had his back the way Lue appears to. It's a transition lots of folks face when changing jobs, learning new bosses, adjusting to co-workers who happen to be the very best at what they do.

"I think it took me a while," Love said. "There are still some things I'm trying to adapt to. It took a while, after being used so much in Minnesota and being the focal point, to having to play a complementary role and be out on the perimeter more. Having to learn to play out there and pick my spots, and go run to the corners instead of running to the basket, I think it helped me to become a better player. But it wasn't always a smooth transition for me."

And now?

Irving Fast-Break Jam

Kyrie Irving gets the jam to go after the steal by Kevin Love.

"You see the spacing that these guys get, primarily LeBron and Kyrie, I think it helps them so much to have guys like 'Swish' [J.R. Smith], and me playing the four. The big man not being able to help, they're having to pick their poison out there. I think you saw that more than anything [in Game 1]."

The Cavs beat Toronto by 31 points, James and Irving repeatedly attacking the rim on 15-of-21 shooting.

Dissecting and psychoanalyzing the dynamics and relationships within Cleveland's locker room isn't the pastime it once was for folks inside and outside the organization. Love's a media-savvy character but his comments on both his star teammates sound genuine.

" 'Bron being such a distributor, he has always wanted to get me going," Love said. "Sometimes it's been tough love. Sometimes it's been putting-his-arm-around-my-shoulder type things. Sometimes it's been lighting a spark underneath me. He's been a great leader for us.

"Kyrie is way ahead of his years. I don't look at Kyrie like he's some young player in this league -- he is way ahead of his time. Very heady, very cerebral, very smart. Between us three, we're always talking the game."

That's the latest chapter with these Cavs, team gatherings -- out to eat the night before a road game, at one another's homes on occasional off-nights in Cleveland -- that purportedly demonstrate improved chemistry. These, too, are said to be for real, not merely optics. Love posted a photo, 15 players strong, from the one he recently hosted on Instagram.

"It's 100 percent genuine," he said. "I would say sometimes, over the course of a team's season, it might not be. Or it's 'Hey, it's been a while, let's take this photo.' But now we want to be together, we want to hang out.

"It's our group-chats watching the other playoff games. Or watching the [Thunder-Warriors Game 2] and talking about what we see, the mistakes that were made, good things that were happening on both sides of the ball. We're all locked in and we enjoy what we're doing, and it's creating such a great culture."

Love, Irving, James and the rest believe the real-time, group-session scouting will help them reach in June what they're striving for now.

"We do that on the road too. Every city we're in, as a team, we go to dinner and we put on a game," Love said. "I'd say, besides maybe last year -- and that was short, before I got hurt -- I had never watched more basketball in my life. It's only natural to want to put it in your mind that you're going to finish this season winning. That's the mindset we want to be in, and that relies heavily on preparing for every team."

Considering Cleveland's current roll, the level of opponents they're facing, the possibility of being healthier and fresher than any other team they might face -- and, of course, the advantage of having Mr. Playoff Perfect on their side -- how comfortable are the Cavaliers with the growing sentiment that, if they reach The Finals, they might be favorites, even against the defending champs?

"You'd have to ask the big guy," Love said, meaning James. "I don't know how I feel about that. I think we're in a good place now and we just want to stay on the straight and narrow. We have a good thing going and whether people want to call us the underdogs or favorites, that's not our job to think about that."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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