In what has become a pregame ritual, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue and his assistants listen to Meek Mill’s “Dreams & Nightmares.”
As the Cavs prepare to meet the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals for a league-record fourth straight year, a more appropriate — and potentially more frightening — song might be Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”
With former Cavs point guard Ky-me Irving having been traded and failing to even sit on the bench for the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, Kevin Love, for better or worse, is Cleveland’s second-best player.
The oft-criticized big man also was in the league’s concussion protocol system leading up to Game 1 of The Finals, which had at least a little something to do with the fact the Cavs opened at plus-650 for the series (a $100 bet would return $650) in Las Vegas.
(As a means of comparison, the Cavs were plus-360 for the series going into the 2007 Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, who won in four games.)
There are, however, several reasons for Northeast Ohio fans to remain optimistic.
One, the Cavs still have LeBron James, with whom all things are possible.
Two, the Cavs defeated the Celtics in Game 6 of the conference finals with Love barely playing five minutes.
Three, they won again in Game 7 without Love playing at all, thanks in large part to a terrific performance by emergency starter Jeff Green, who’s going to have to come up big again in The Finals, with or without Love.
Finally, if you believe in omens, Love missed Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals with a concussion and came off the bench in Game 4 before returning to the starting lineup in Games 5 through 7.
We all remember how that series turned out, right? James got “The Block” against Andre Iguodala, Irving hit “The Shot” and Love came up with “The Stop” while defending Stephen Curry above the 3-point line in the closing moments of Game 7.
Of course, that was Love’s shining moment in what was an otherwise humongous personal struggle in the 2016 Finals, when he averaged a lowly 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists.
The 6-foot-10, 251-pounder — does anyone seriously believe he still weighs 251? — performed much better statistically in the 2017 Finals, averaging 16.0 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.0 assists.
Much more important than statistics, though, is what Lue and his staff will do with Love — he didn’t play in the 2015 Finals after suffering a shoulder injury in the first round vs. Boston — on the defensive end.
If Iguodala is unable to play due to a sore left knee that kept him out of the last four games of the Western Conference finals, the Cavs will logically use Love on a non-offensive threat like Kevon Looney or JaVale McGee.
But even then, the Warriors are going to put Love in pick-and-roll situations as often as possible. Ultimately, that means he’s going to end up trying to defend someone like Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green or even Klay Thompson on numerous occasions.
And that’s exactly what Love’s got to do with this. While he’s intelligent, makes the right decisions from a game-planning standpoint and tries his best, he’s not a real effective perimeter defender because he’s not mobile enough.
That will likely be exposed over and over, which puts Lue in an even tougher situation. Does the coach hope Love can offset his defensive shortcomings by putting up big numbers at the offensive end? That could happen, particularly if Love starts knocking down 3-pointers, but that’s been a rarity so far in the 2018 postseason. Worse, he’s struggled mightily to score in the post, even against smaller players.
The one constant with Love has always been his defensive rebounding, which is vital on a team that doesn’t have many players who excel in that area. (And even that will be more difficult in this series if he has to come away from the basket.)
James got all 15 of his boards in Game 7 vs. Boston at that end of the floor, but it would be asking a ton for him to consistently come close to duplicating that performance against the Warriors, particularly since he already has to carry the Cleveland offense.
Green and Tristan Thompson also were good on the boards in Game 7, but historically the defensive end has not been a strong suit for either.
In a nutshell, if Love isn’t scoring efficiently and is struggling to hold his own defensively, it will become very difficult to keep him on the floor for long stretches. But if he’s making shots and can hold his own defensively, the Cavs, who have nothing resembling a clear-cut, third-best player, will be in much better shape.
So what’s Love got to do with it?
Or maybe nothing.
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