INDEPENDENCE — The Cavaliers no longer have a “Big Three,” so they’re going to need big performances from their “Dynamic Duo” if they are to have another long playoff run.
Kyrie Irving’s offseason trade request having been granted, four-time league MVP LeBron James is probably going to need center Kevin Love to put up big numbers almost every game this time around, beginning Sunday at 3:30 p.m. when fourth-seeded Cleveland (50-32) opens its postseason by hosting the Indiana Pacers (48-34) at Quicken Loans Arena.
“Kevin’s just being Kevin,” coach Tyronn Lue said Friday after practice. “He’s approached it the same way every single year I’ve been here.
“He understands he’s a big part of what we’re trying to do. He’s going to get a lot of plays ran for him. A lot of stuff is going to filter through Kevin. He just has to be great for us, and I think he will.”
With Irving traded and his replacement, the since-traded Isaiah Thomas, out through December, many people predicted before the season Love would put up his best numbers since coming to Cleveland in 2014.
It didn’t happen. The 6-foot-10, 251-pounder averaged 19.0 points and 11.1 rebounds while playing with Irving a season ago. This season, those numbers were 17.6 and 9.3.
Love missed 23 games due to injury or illness and bounced between starting at center and power forward, but the 29-year-old is confident he’ll rise to the occasion in the postseason.
“I feel pretty comfortable in what I’m able to do,” he said. “I know what’s at stake. I know I need to step up, but that’s no different than years past. I feel like I just have to go out there and play my game.”
Love shot .458 from the field this season, including .415 on 3-pointers, and .880 at the line. The 10th-year pro also demonstrated the ability to hit shots from well beyond the 3-point arc in transition.
“If we’re playing with pace and pushing the basketball, a five’s first instinct is to get back to the basket,” Lue said. “If Kevin’s trailing in, that’s a wide-open shot for him.
“It’s very important for our guards to run the floor, Bron playing with pace, (George) Hill playing with pace. When they’re running the floor, that opens everything up for Kevin.”
Against the Pacers, Love will start out battling athletic Myles Tuner (12.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg), then likely confront the ever-improving Domantas Sabonis (11.6, 7.7) off the bench.
The laid-back UCLA product, however, is more focused on his team’s performance than what he does individually.
“Just losing Ky, a number of us are going to have to pick it up on the offensive end, whether it be Bron, myself, everybody really,” Love said. “It’s well-documented we only have four guys left from that (2016) championship team (James, Love, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith), but we have a lot of veteran, savvy guys with a ton of experience. We’re going to have to bring those other guys along, but there’s nothing better than just throwing yourself into it.”
Love and the Cavs, who used 30 starting lineups in the regular season, should also benefit from being fully healthy for one of the few times in 2017-18.
“It seems like the first time all year we’re all healthy, coaches included,” Love said. “It feels good to be headed into Sunday at 100 percent.”
Though the Cavs are seeded fourth in the Eastern Conference, Love loves their chances of reaching the NBA Finals for a fourth straight year. Cleveland has posted a 36-5 record in the East playoffs over the last three seasons.
“I always feel like when we take the floor, we can win every game,” Love said. “I feel like we’re a really tough out, to beat us four games. We have the best player in the world and a lot of guys that are hungry to prove what they can do.
“What we’ve proven in the past is we’re really good at locking in and putting it all together.”
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