Coming into this postseason – and, frankly, throughout most of the regular season – much of the talk surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers focused on star forward Kevin Love.
As we know, Love’s season hasn’t entirely been what people were expecting from him when he joined forces with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. His stats took a significant decline, he’s been in the middle of various rumors about wanting to leave the team at season’s end and, of course, he’s dealt with numerous questions and storylines about whether or not he and James get along.
As Love prepared for his first ever NBA playoff game this past weekend, many seemed to wonder if his inexperience at this stage may cause issues on the court. Already having a difficult time fitting into his role with the Cavs, there was no way of knowing whether or not these issues would increase during the most important time of the year. And, with James seemingly hard-pressed to bring a title to Cleveland, you couldn’t help but ponder about just how the NBA’s best player would react if Love struggled to pull his weight this postseason.
Well, we got our first example of how this could play out during yesterday’s opening round matchup with the Boston Celtics.
Love struggled mightily during the first two quarters of Game 1, missing the rim more often than not. Despite James trying to get him into the game early, Love just kept shooting blanks. It certainly appeared as though the playoff lights were a bit too bright for him, and it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if he was slowly, but effectively phased out of the game-plan due to his problems.
A funny thing happened, though. Instead of ignoring Love and giving up on him, James continued to try and get him going. He could be seen tapping him on the shoulders a few times, as if to tell him not to worry and to keep looking for shots despite none of them falling for him. As a result, Love ended the game a whole lot stronger than he started, finishing with 19 points and 12 rebounds, helping his team take a 1-0 series lead over Boston.
While the biggest storyline from yesterday’s game was Irving’s stunning 30-point playoff debut, the dynamic between Love and James can’t be ignored. After spending the entire season struggling to incorporate one of the team’s best players, it looks like James finally found the right route to take in getting through to Love.
In the days leading up to Sunday’s matchup with the Celtics, there were no cryptic tweets about fitting in or fitting out. There were no subtle pot shots in the media. No, instead, James spent the past few days hammering home just how important Love was to this team. To some, it may have come off as singling Love out and heaping loads of pressure onto him. But, if Game 1 is any indication, it appears as though James was simply being honest about Love’s impact with the team, especially since he spent much of the game trying to prove this point.
With the way Love started, James easily could’ve said “screw it” and given up on him for the day. As a result, Love could’ve just fallen deeper into his funk, allowing the pressure of the postseason to continue negatively affecting his game.
However, the constant support James showed, his refusal to let Love get down about his rough postseason debut, ended up turning him into a completely different player. Love suddenly became much more aggressive with the basketball, driving to the hoop despite Boston’s attempt to hold him back. He took charges and fought for crucial rebounds, often looking relentless in the paint. His intense play paid off at the foul line as well, where Love netted seven of his 19 points on the night.
Is James singlehandedly responsible for Love turning an ugly start into an impressive overall performance? Maybe not. Still, James’ insistence on continuing to get him involved despite how miserably he was shooting had to have been a huge confidence boost. It was as if he was telling Love he meant every word about how important he was to the Cavs, and as a result, Love proved him right.
Who knows if this will continue on past Game 1. For all we know, things could go back to the way they were come tomorrow night, with Love’s struggles taking him out of the game mentally while the rest of the team plays on without him.
But, you’d like to think James saw just how effective this mindset of not letting Love get down and continuing to feed him the ball truly was. No longer does he need to question whether or not Love fits in Cleveland, nor do either players need to worry about just how close they are.
Instead, if James wants Love to be at his best, he just needs to continue with the same strategy he brought yesterday. Keep getting him shots, regardless of whether or not they’re falling, and don’t let him beat himself up if he struggles.
If James stays with this new approach, all while he and Irving continue to shine, there’s no telling how far Cleveland can go. Love truly is important to this Cavs team. James knows this, and if yesterday is any hint, he may finally know exactly how to get the most out of him.