As LeBron James clings onto his playoff life with the injury-riddled Los Angeles Lakers and Kyrie Irving attempts to maintain the slumping Boston Celtics’ positioning in the standings, the third member of the former Cleveland Cavaliers big three is relishing the chance to play the game he loves.
“I feel like a big part of my life and my identity is taken away when the game is taken away from me,” Kevin Love said after a win over the Memphis Grizzlies in late February. “So I feel really good and really fortunate just to be out there.”
Having been sidelined from mid-October to the beginning of February, Kevin Love played in just his 11th game of the season this past Sunday night. The All-Star big man put up a 16-point, 14-rebound double-double, his fourth in five contests.
Since Feb. 11, Love is averaging 20.3 points and 11 rebounds on 46.5 percent from deep on over seven attempts per game. According to Cleaning The Glass, his usage rate is 26.8 percent and the Cavaliers on/off differential with him playing is plus-14.2 per 100 possessions.
“He’s a walking double-double,” Larry Nance Jr. said of Love after beating the New York Knicks. “That’s something he’s been his whole career and that’s certainly not gonna change now. He’s just such a weapon for us.”
Cleveland head coach Larry Drew noticed a difference in the team’s flow and rhythm the moment that Love hit the floor in Washington a month ago. Not surprisingly, his effect has only gotten more significant.
In the seven games the Cavaliers have played with Love, their record is 5-2. Overall, they have won five of the last eight and are .500 in their last 14 games. All of this coincides with the minute the 30-year-old came back to practice and started logging minutes on the floor with his teammates.
“He’s our go-to guy,” Drew told Basketball Insiders at Friday’s practice. “And anytime you have a go-to guy, you’re gonna play through him. And we haven’t had that luxury all season long where he’s been out.
“Now that he’s with us, we can play through him – whether we play through him on the post or whether we play through him on the perimeter – we have a guy that we can play through.”
Those on the outside are seeing Love’s production with the eye-popping statistics as he continues to get back to his usual workload, but his mere presence has improved the on-court product and accelerated the growth of team chemistry almost immediately.
“I mean, he’s an All-Star,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “That’s a major impact on a team. And it’s not just his points or his rebounds. It’s just the level of respect the opposing team has to have for him when he’s on the court. So yeah, this is what we knew he was gonna do.
“That’s why, coming into this year, we were very optimistic about what we can be and who we can become. And now when he’s back, you see us optimistic again. There are only, what, 24 All-Stars in the NBA and that’s one of ’em. It’s great to have him back.”
While Love usually doesn’t take too much credit for his performances, he does understand the difference he makes for others. Specifically, he believes that second-year wing Cedi Osman and rookie point guard Collin Sexton—and Ante Zizic in certain cases—have benefited the most.
“Just by spacing the floor because the other team has to react to that being able to play inside-out, being able to pass the ball,” Love said. “I think all of us have been jelling in practice, and the more time we’re out there together, the better we’re gonna get.”
Lineup data backs this claim.
Out of Cleveland’s six four-man combinations that have played together for at least 65 minutes since the comeback, the top lineup in offensive (118), defensive (102.5) and net rating (plus-15.5) across the board are those three previously mentioned players and Love.
Regarding the six three-man lineups used with a minimum of 100 minutes, the top trio in offensive (120.9) and net rating (plus-12.5) is Love, Osman and Sexton. And as for the young core guys specifically, it’s only fitting that Sexton and Osman, each paired with Love, have the top two offensive and net ratings among duos on the team based on the same scale.
Let’s put this in perspective in the easiest way possible—Sexton and Osman have played a team-high 1,292 minutes together this season, by far the leading two-man lineup Cleveland has sent out there. Their net rating (minus-16.1), though, is dead last in the league. Enough said, right?
If those figures are still a little too confusing to sort through, allow the aforementioned players themselves to tell you about Love’s influence.
“I’m feeling really comfortable right now,” Osman said. “I’m always looking for Kevin, especially in that post whenever he wants the ball I’ll pass it to him because we know that he’s gonna either make a basket or he’s gonna make you a good pass.”
“It’s good because you have to play him honest,” Sexton said after Cleveland’s most recent victory. “He’s a great shooter. He posts up. He draws so much attention and it makes it easier for everybody else. And then when it’s like that, we’re a pretty hard team to beat.”
With the majority of Sexton’s first year spent without a veteran—aside from the games Tristan Thompson has played in—Love believes the rookie’s development was somewhat halted.
Going back to his beginnings with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Love cited that he missed having Al Jefferson out on the floor to show him the ways after the big center had torn his ACL in the same respect Sexton missed him.
“Anytime you have a veteran presence around guys that have gone through it – both losing and winning in that respect – you can learn a lot from them,” Love said. “I think him not having us out there is definitely effective in a lot of ways.
“I think that our veteran leadership and always just having somebody in your ear is a good way to help, especially when you have your ups and downs of a rookie season.”
Don’t shortchange Love’s impact to only the inexperienced talents, either. Guys who have been there have felt it, too.
Nance notes that he’s used to getting tags on screen-and-rolls, but the lane has now opened up for him because of how much defenses respect Love.
“His gravity is ridiculous. He just pulls everybody towards him on the defensive end,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “You can see Cedi hitting wide open shots, Collin getting open shots, Collin being able to attack close-outs, both of them. When a guy like that is on the court, it’s a major advantage.”
Jordan Clarkson says teams can’t drop or show on screens because Love will head over to the perimeter to either shoot, swing or put it on the floor. And if he gets switched on at the block, it’s usually a huge mismatch in strength that leads to a score “90 percent of the time.”
“He makes the game so much easier – a lot of shots, a lot of free moving,” Clarkson said. “The ball is popping. He knows how to play. If you pass it to him on the wing, he’s giving it right back to you right into a screen, just slip in, doing what he does.”
A teammate of Love’s on the 2016 NBA Championship version of the Cavaliers, Matthew Dellavedova has observed a change in the matured power forward’s leadership.
“He’s a lot more vocal, I’ll tell you that,” Dellavedova said at Tuesday’s practice. “He’s definitely grown a lot there and he’s doing a good job of talking to the younger guys.
“I think everyone inside the locker room and inside the organization obviously knows his value and what he brings to the team. If outside people [don’t], they should see it. They should have already seen it.”
Dellavedova is not wrong.
Going back to that same date of Feb. 11, Cleveland is second in win differential and 10th in offensive rating, scoring 113 points per 100 possessions. Per Cleaning The Glass, they are playing like a 40-win team.
It’s only a less-than-one-month sample size, yes, but body language tells the story of how far this Cavaliers team has come. Remember, this roster was once a mix of disgruntled veterans and inexperienced youth that didn’t seem to mesh the way the organization would’ve hoped. When Love went down, that tension only got worse.
Credit general manager Koby Altman for not only trading last year’s leftovers with undesirable contracts, but also going into asset accumulation mode and setting this franchise up for financial flexibility and success moving forward. The locker room has absolutely been better off since those moves. Nevertheless, the on-court product had been bit of a wildcard.
However, now that Love’s back and playing with the core he was supposed to, both aspects of Cleveland’s situation have turned into a breath of fresh air. The front office is looking at true progress from the team’s most vital pieces, and that was what they had been desiring all along.
And unless there is some kind of crazy shakeup due to a winning streak (or losing streak), they’re essentially guaranteed a top-four position in the upcoming NBA Draft Lottery. Remember, the odds have been altered to prevent tanking, too.
But the Cavaliers are dead set on finishing the season out on a high note. Nance has made it clear that he wants to be a top-eight ball club in the second half of the season. Sexton is motivated by missing out on the Rising Stars game. Osman would like to build on the strides he’s made as well.
For Love, it’s all been enjoyable. The vibe around Cleveland is as good as it’s been all season, and everybody’s plan is to let the good times roll.
“It’s funny to say…like it seems a little bit elementary, but we’re having fun.” Love said after a 107-93 bounceback against the Magic. “It’s always fun to win. But we’re sharing the ball, we’re moving the ball, we’re playing for each other and I think we’re making steps and strides in the right direction.
“I think that relieves any tension from losing and just not accepting the losses. So I think we’ve definitely learned a lot, but just learning how to win and what it takes is key, especially with this young group.”
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