The Cavaliers and the Kevin Love Question

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The Cleveland Cavaliers got back into the NBA Finals in resounding fashion on Wednesday night with a 120-90 shellacking of the Golden State Warriors. For the first time in the series, the Cavs played with the sustained effort and intensity it takes to win a championship and got star performances from Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Under the weight of criticism, speculation, and doubt, Cleveland responded and made it a series again.

Irving and James each played by far their best games of the series thus far, but it wasn’t just those two who brought their A-games. After anonymous performances in Games 1 and 2, the Cavs’ role players finally stepped up and gave James the help he needed to push the team to a victory. J.R. Smith broke out for 20 points on 5-of-10 shooting, Timofey Mozgov saw some early playing time for the first time in a while, Tristan Thompson recorded a monster double-double, and Iman Shumpert, while only tallying three points and five rebounds in 18 minutes, was more involved and engaged than usual.

Perhaps the most notable part of Cleveland’s Game 3 dominance was the absence of All-Star power forward Kevin Love, who left Game 2 with a concussion and failed to pass the NBA’s concussion protocol in time for the start of Game 3. In what would prove to be a potential series-altering decision, Tyronn Lue elected to insert Richard Jefferson into the starting lineup, sliding James to the four and giving the Cavs a 2012 Miami Heat look with Jefferson in a Shane Battier-type role. Jefferson notched nine points and eight rebounds in 33 minutes, but his impact went far beyond the box score. He gives the Cavs flexibility, especially on defense, which is a valuable quality against Golden State.

Lue insisted in his media day press conference Thursday afternoon that Love’s absence had no effect on Cleveland’s ability to match up with the Warriors, especially in transition, but I think he knows that having a guy like Jefferson on the floor does make life a little easier for the Cavs defensively. James is the Cleveland’s best option to neutralize the playmaking abilities of Draymond Green, and when he plays the four, that becomes his natural matchup. In Cleveland’s traditional lineup, that would be Love drawing the assignment of guarding Green—not nearly as favorable a matchup for the Cavs—unless Lue wants to try him out on Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala, who the Warriors will use to set and receive ball screens.

Additionally, the double hybrid forward look makes the Cavs better equipped to handle cross-matches in transition, as all five players are able to guard on the perimeter, at least until they find a time to switch back to the regular matchups. This is an extremely useful edge against a team like the Warriors, who can do so much damage early in the shot clock, and with Love out there, Golden State can exploit those cross-matches more easily. Love hasn’t been bad defensively this series, but the painful and unfair reality for him and the rest of the Cavs is that no matter where he is on defense, the Warriors will find ways to involve him, which is not something the Cavs want.

LeBron can thrive with anyone playing alongside him, but he’s proven to be particularly potent when he plays point-power forward and is surrounded by shooters and defensive-minded players, making him the initiator and puppeteer of the offense. That’s part of the reason for Miami’s great success in 2012 and 13 and Cleveland’s relative success last season.

All of this raises a very interesting question: would the Cavaliers be better off continuing to start Richard Jefferson and bringing Kevin Love off the bench? That sentence would have sounded absolutely comically ridiculous at the start of the season, or even a month ago. (Seriously, read it again and imagine what your reaction would have been if someone suggested that six months ago.) But it’s been a hot take across the NBA world over the last few days, and there’s some validity to the argument. Playing Love for 20 to 30 minutes a game with the second unit could help fix some of the matchup problems Cleveland has as well as free up some more open looks for Love and allow him to take advantage of guys like Anderson Varejao, Mo Speights, Festus Ezeli, and even Andrew Bogut when Green isn’t on the floor. Channing Frye has virtually been a nonfactor in this series, and Love could essentially take his spot in the rotation with 10-15 more minutes and play the stretch-five-off-the-bench role. In other words, he could be what Frye was against the Hawks.

Now, Love is an All Star, and he isn’t the type of player who needs to be pitied for being under immense pressure and scrutiny; but this is the Finals, and Cleveland can’t afford to drop Game 4 at home. If bringing Love off the bench is the adjustment that needs to be made for the Cavs to have the best chance to win, then so be it. But remember, David Lee was a starter for the Warriors and an All Star before he got there, and he came of the bench and played crucial minutes in last year’s Finals; Love could be a similar X-factor for the Cleveland this year.

(Of course, this is all assuming Love will be available for Game 4. At the time of this writing, his status is still undetermined.)

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The Love question is a big one for the Cavs, but they’re not the only team facing questions about their lineup. For the last two days, Steve Kerr has been asked about whether or not he will tinker with his starting lineup. He—and assistant coach Nick U’Ren—famously made the decision to start Andre Iguodala in place of Bogut before Game 4 last season, and the Dubs rattled off three straight wins to clinch the series. Will they do the same in this year? Kerr certainly doesn’t seem to think the change is necessary. Not yet, at least. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Kerr’s relationship with the media over the last two years, it’s that you can’t trust everything he says in his press conferences. The Warriors coaching staff plays everything close to the vest, using misdirection and, at times, straight-up lying to the media to keep their internal operations shrouded in mystery.

It would not surprise me if Kerr started Iguodala in place of either Bogut or Barnes. Golden State is minus-19 with Bogut on the floor this series and plus-36 when he sits. As good as Bogut can be for stretches, those numbers don’t lie, and Golden State’s best lineups don’t include him in this series. Playing small is the Warriors advantage, and they’ll need Iguodala’s strength, length, quickness, and smarts on James for as many minutes as possible, especially if Irving carries his momentum into Game 4. There’s no true LeBron-stopper, but Iguodala is one of few men who can consistently slow him down, and he could be the most valuable player Golden State has.

Speaking of Most Valuable Players, Steph Curry has yet to eclipse the 20-point mark this series. I don’t buy the questions about his superstar status and MVP credibility, nor do I think he and the Warriors care about that stuff. What I do buy is the idea that Steph is probably still not fully recovered from his first-round knee injury. His lateral movement isn’t the same as it was before the injury, and his ability to scamper across the court and slalom around screens has clearly been hindered. But that’s life in the NBA; at this point in the season, everyone is banged up, and Curry needs to find a way to assert himself more.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. The Cavs have done a great job limiting Curry’s looks and making his shots difficult; they’re sending traps and double teams at the right times and doing a great job taking away his passing lanes out of the pick and roll. The same goes for Thompson, who has struggled even more than Curry has. Still, I’d bet on Curry or Thompson putting up a crooked number in Game 4 or 5. These guys are too good to be silent for this long; at some point, they’re going to get in a zone and make some shots. The Warriors have proven the can win when their two leading scorers don’t have great games, but if the Cavs put together the total team effort they did on Wednesday night, Golden State will need the Splash Brothers to explode at least once or twice.

That’s what this series could come down to: whose stars will be better over the course of the next four games? Forget legacies and reputations. What Curry, Thompson, and James do in this series matters now. A Game 4 win would be huge for either team—a chance to even the series and make it a best-of-three for Cleveland, a chance to steal a game and take a commanding 3-1 lead for Golden State—and it may well be the turning point in the series.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBAwowy!

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