Kevin Love’s first taste of the postseason didn’t do quite as he hoped. He averaged 14.3 points and seven rebounds in a four-game sweep of the Boston Celtics before being missing the rest of the playoffs with a shoulder injury. He sat on the sidelines while his fellow Cleveland Cavaliers made a trip to the NBA Finals and nearly took down the Golden State Warriors thanks to the heroics of LeBron James.
A year later, the goal in The Land hasn’t changed, but the stakes are a little higher for Love. After being the subject of trade rumors and LeBron sub-tweets for the better part of his two seasons in Cleveland, this is shaping up to be a make-or-break postseason for the three-time All-Star.
If he can stay healthy and perform like the offensive machine he was in Minnesota, the Cavaliers have a puncher’s chance of finally raising a championship banner in Quicken Loans Arena. If he goes down again or fails to make much of an impact, the momentum to move Love during the offseason will continue to build.
Fortunately, Love’s second chance to make a first impression got off to a good start. He dropped 28 points and 13 rebounds in Game 1 against the Detroit Pistons. Most importantly, he showed a level of aggression that had been missing throughout his Cleveland tenure. Love’s 22 field-goal attempts were the most he’s ever put up in a Cavs uniform and the first time he’s had 20+ takes since Jan. 11, 2015.
In his first postseason game as a head coach, Tyronn Lue used Love to create mismatches for the Pistons’ defense. When Detroit tried to guard Love with smaller defenders like Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris, the 6-foot-10, 250-pound forward used the size gap to his advantage.
When Kev is going on that left block he is tough to stop,” Tristan Thompson said, per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com. “With them switching with Tobias (Harris) or Marcus Morris we have to take advantage of that. Kevin did that tonight and attacked them and got second-chance opportunities and drew fouls. That’s what we need every night from him.”
Lue also used Love at center in an effort to get the NBA’s leading rebounder, Andre Drummond, out of the paint.
“K-Love shoots at such a good clip from the three-point line,” Thompson said. “We have to draw (Drummond) out, pull him away from the rim and when we do that there’s a chance to get second-chance opportunities and it makes him tired.”
The inability to adjust flustered Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, whose team lost the battle on the boards 51-43 including a huge 12-5 gap on the offensive glass.
“We’ve got the best rebounder in the league, and we’re playing him from 25 feet. We knew it was coming. It was something we worked on yesterday. Obviously, not well enough.”
The key for Love and the Cavs going forward is to continue to find ways to get their $110 million man involved, even beyond the Pistons series. We’ve seen Love have big games in the past only to fade back into obscurity. To his credit, the big man knows he needs to redeem himself for last season’s abbreviated effort by coming up strong this time around.
“I looked at it as an important opportunity,” Love said, via Cleveland.com’s Matt Goul. “Between Kyrie and myself, we’ve had many conversations about our playoff run being cut short.”
While it’s understandable for Cleveland to applaud Love’s contributions now, the other side of the coin is what happens if the club’s championship goal comes up empty yet again?
James can opt out this summer, and while it seems unlikely he’d break his hometown’s heart a second time, the franchise is going to do what it takes to keep him happy. That means changes could be coming. Center Timofey Mozgov is already a long shot to be re-signed, but who else might follow the big Russian out the door? Kyrie? Love? Iman Shumpert?
Of that group, Love might be the most expendable. The team can replace his ability to space the floor with Channing Frye as starting power forward/occasional small-ball center. Cleveland also has Thompson, who signed a $82 million deal last fall and has done solid work this season defensively as well as on the boards. Additionally, removing Love’s large contract would help the league’s highest payroll save a few dollars.
That’s why this postseason is pivotal to Love’s future in Cleveland. Injuries, inconsistent production and poor defense have marred his Cavs career up until this point, but he can change that narrative with more performances like the one he had in Game 1.