Kevin Love doing Kevin Love things is vital to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ postseason, which means he’ll either be lauded or lambasted according either to his stats line or where each series stands at any given moment.
His standing with Cavaliers fans and no small number of media critics varies wildly. The way Love has handled his place in Cleveland’s pecking order behind LeBron James through four years of long playoff runs sometimes earns him the respect shown over time to former Miami big man and future Hall of Famer Chris Bosh. Then the calendar flips a time or two and you’d think Love was Fredo Corleone (h/t Shaq).
By the time this Cavs era is done, we can expect to hear clamoring once again to trade Love. Along with the statue of him they’ll have erected outside of Quicken Loans Arena by then.
That’s how capricious this whole thing can be. It’s the old quote from Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter – “The sun don’t shine on the same dog’s [tail] all the time” – sped up and spun faster for the social media age.
Love has endured the supporters and the skeptics long enough to have climbed into fourth place on Cleveland’s all-time playoff scoring list, his 815 points surpassing Zydrunas Ilgauskas (784) and Brad Daugherty (782). But these are “the history of now” times in which we live, and the 6-foot-10 power forward/stretch four/center (as circumstances dictate) has learned not to react to every slight or bit of praise.
“That kind of almost transcends sports,” Love said after Cleveland’s series-clinching Game 4 against Toronto this week. “It becomes so much of ‘What have you done for me lately?’ It’s pretty... I don’t know if fickle is the right word, but it’s so hit-and-miss. If you have one bad game, people will jump on you. They’ll say, ‘Oh he’s trash. He’s not this, he’s not that.’”
It sounds so illusory, with the staying power of a sugar cube in a thunderstorm. Paper thin.
“That’s what it is, it’s paper thin,” Love said in his corner of the Cavs’ locker room at the Q. In a few minutes, the 10-year veteran would take to the podium alongside James to talk about their 11th consecutive Eastern Conference series victory in their four years together.
One poor performance, though, and – not just Love – they’d both be hearing about it.
“What I’ve learned, in sports, fortune and momentum can change so fast,” Love said. “I think you saw that, especially after Game 7 [against Indiana] and then the fashion in which we won Game 1 [against Toronto] – we didn’t take our first lead until overtime. I think that changed our postseason and put us in a more positive light.
“Guys started getting more success throughout our entire lineup. Guys started seeing more playoff time than they’d ever seen prior. Now we get a sweep, a few days rest and hopefully a chance to bounce back [to the Finals].”
It becomes so much of ‘What have you done for me lately?’ It’s pretty... I don’t know if fickle is the right word, but it’s so hit-and-miss. If you have one bad game, people will jump on you.
Yet it was only two weeks ago that James himself put some pressure on Love to step up, like, y’know, right now.
“He’s a huge part of our success or our non-success,” the Cleveland superstar said of Love after they got blown out in Game 6 of the first round in Indianapolis. That night, Love missed seven of his 10 shots and finished with seven points.
James sounded frustrated and, naturally, fans and media followed his lead. “We try to go to him, we want to go to him,” James said. “We can’t make the shots for him. He has to step up and knock those down.”
Love didn’t flinch. In fact, he helped the Cavaliers advance with 14 points in Game 7, hitting half of his eight 3-point attempts. Forty-eight hours later, he shot 3-of-13 in Game 1 against Toronto to again finish with seven points. And so, it goes.
Love is averaging 14.7 points and 10.1 rebounds this postseason, but his scoring average is off by nearly three points from the regular season. He’s shooting 39.4 percent in these playoffs compared to 45.8 in 2017-18’s first 82.
The regular season wasn’t without its hurdles for Love, either. There was adapting to All-Star Kyrie Irving’s requested trade and absence, with Love bumping up in theory to No. 2 after James. Then he was out from Jan. 31 to March 19 with a broken left hand and the team’s roster was overhauled in his absence at the trade deadline. By the time he returned, only four Cavs remained – James, Love, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson – from the 2016 championship team.
Everybody was adjusting to everybody in the season’s final weeks. But Love knew by then not to take any of it, or folks’ reactions, very personally.
Recalling this stage of the playoffs – the East finals in 2016 – Love said: “I came out and had two really good games and two not-so-good games against Toronto. Everybody said, ‘Oh, the Cavaliers have a ‘Kevin Love problem.’ And that’s been pretty typical. OK, I just kept my mouth shut.
“And [former Cavs reserve] Channing Frye and I talked, and he was like, ‘Listen, when I was in the Western Conference finals, I went 1 for 19.’ So, it was like, ‘You think you’re having a bad day?’”
Frye in fact made only one of his first 21 shots for Phoenix in the first three games of the 2010 West finals against the Lakers, including 18 misses in a row. But the former Suns forward/center made nine of 20 3-point attempts over the next three games and wasn’t the reason the Lakers prevailed.
After his chat with Frye, Love said, “We came out in Games 5 and 6, got a win here, played great, then got a win in Toronto to close out the series. So, it just goes to show you, people will turn for both good and for bad. Both ways. That’s just the way it is in sports. You just have to live hand by hand – but know what you’re capable of. Because if not, you can go down a rabbit hole.”
Love’s ongoing challenge this spring has been Cavs coach Tyronn Lue’s use of him at center vs. Love’s preference for the power forward spot. The defensive matchups are tougher in the middle, his offensive mismatches trickier to create and exploit.
But Lue likes loading up his starting lineup with shooters around James, and Love at the five allows for Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith both to start along with George Hill. When Thompson does play off the bench, Loves gets to shift.
“He’s making shots, he’s playing with a real good pace,” Lue said Monday. “Defensively he’s got a few blocked shots, some deflections at the basket. He’s been good for us. We’ve got to continue to keep going to him. ... Kevin’s been doing a really good job just changing his pace and speeds.”
Love’s ability to pull Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas or Serge Ibaka outside in Games 2 and 3 of the East semis, good for a total of 53 points on 18-of-35 shooting, prompted Raptors coach Dwane Casey to move Valanciunas to the bench for Game 4. Didn’t matter, Love scored 23 in the Cavaliers’ breezy victory.
Casey called Love “one of the more clever” bigs in the league. “Always doing different things,” the coach said. “He’s efficient whether screen-and-rolling with LeBron or screen-and-rolling with George Hill. He knows how to get you into a switch when we’re trying to avoid it. As much as we try to, it happens and we’ve got to be prepared for when it does, with a small switched onto him.”
Love and Korver have developed chemistry in that area, too, over their 16 months together. It’s the sort of thing that might help against Boston in this round, given the Celtics’ defensive capabilities and tactics.
Which means Love – who averaged 22.6 points and 12.4 rebounds on 53.5 percent 3-point shooting against Boston in last year’s postseason – could be heaped with praise by series’ end. Or just buried, if the numbers don’t add up for him and the Cavs.
It’s what he expected when taking on the Bosh role among LeBron sidekicks, it’s something that no longer rocks his world. Heck, it’s a part of all of our world, a madly swinging pendulum. A strong core, a thick skin and a good shrug are the best defense.
“You see it every day, whether it’s politics or sports or pop culture,” Love said. “There’s this 24-hour news cycle and there has to be some sort of story.
“Like I said after Game 2 [against the Raptors, in which he pounded them inside while scoring 31 points], ‘I didn’t forget how to play basketball.’ Sometimes it’s a bad matchup. I was missing some uncharacteristic shots. But there were other things I was doing out there. It’s not I just forgot how to play.
“That’s just how it is sometimes.”
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