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How The Cavaliers Returned Kevin Love To All-Star Form

When healthy this year, Kevin Love was really good. In fact, it was easily his most productive campaign since moving from Minnesota to Cleveland.

He posted career highs in effective field goal (.552) and true shooting percentage (.614). His per-36-minute averages of 22.7 points and 11.9 rebounds were the best during his Cavaliers tenure. Love shot 41.5 percent from three-point range, a mark that only trails his 41.7 percent clip in 2010-11 — albeit on 2.7 more attempts per game this season.

That Kevin Love, though, was an ancient relic during the first eight games of the playoffs as he averaged 10.9 points and 2.4 turnovers per game (1.4 assists) while shooting 31.9 percent from the floor and 38.5 percent beyond the arc. Sprinkle in a massive dash of turnstile defense and it’s hard to imagine Kevin Love was once considered a top-10 player in the NBA.

Part of his problems may come from injuries. Love suffered a torn ligament in his left thumb during Game 2 versus the Indiana Pacers, which has surely affected his some of shooting prowess, evidenced by plays like this:

 

But it was more than that. Love was missing bunnies at the rim and wide-open jumpers from deep, even when afforded time to set up.

In Game 2 against the Raptors, however, the five-time All-Star returned to form as Cleveland presumedly ended Toronto’s season for the third time in three years. The 6-foot-10 forward-center hybrid dropped 31 points on 11-of-21 shooting (2-for-6 from three), grabbed 11 rebounds, dished out two assists (one turnover), swiped one steal and rejected one shot.

Of Love’s 21 field goal attempts, 12 came inside the restricted area (57.1 percent of his total shots), which represents a stark contrast to his time with Cleveland.

Over the past four regular seasons, only 34.1 percent of his looks have come in the restricted area. Upon his arrival in Northeastern Ohio, Love has primarily been relegated to spot-up shooting duties, foregoing most of the interior bruising he did with the Timberwolves when 49.2 percent of his total looks came in the restricted area.During his last three seasons with Minnesota, Love hoisted up 18.5 shots and 5.9 treys a night. With the Cavs, his overall looks per game have tumbled to 13.0 while his three-point attempts have only slipped to 5.7. That wasn’t the case in Game 2 as Love’s shot chart more closely resembled his time in Minnesota, with only six of his 21 attempts from three-point range.

Kevin Love, Cavaliers

Kevin Love Game 2 shot chart. Per NBA.com.

On Thursday night, Love found himself matched up with undersized wings or guards and Cleveland, in an attempt to get their sweet shooting big going, fed him early and often. He attempted nine shots in the opening frame and scored 10 points. Those buckets, though, weren’t the result of the Cavs running sets to free him for shots from deep. Instead, he feasted on mismatches inside. When Toronto switched on pick and rolls involving DeMar DeRozan, Love carved up the apathetic defender:

Per Mike Zavagno of SB Nation’s Fear The Sword, Cleveland scored 18 points on 12 post-up possessions from Love on Thursday. In the other eight games combined this postseason, the Cavs had only produced 41 points on 46 Love post-up possessions.

Much of the difference for Kevin Love came from opportunities he had against undersized defenders. In Game 2 against the Raptors, Love totaled 24 possessions and attempted 10 shots against players positionally labeled as something other than power forwards or centers. Here’s the breakdown:

  • C.J. Miles: 3 of 3 from the field, six points
  • DeMar DeRozan: 2 of 3, four points
  • Kyle Lowry: 0 of 2, zero points
  • Delon Wright: 1 0f 1, two points
  • O.G. Anunoby: 1 of 1, three points
  • Total: 7 of 10, 15 points

During the other eight playoff games, Love had been matched up against non-power forwards or centers on just 46 possessions and fired up six shots. Perhaps the most telling signal of Love’s passivity and his diminished role in the offense was this: Per NBA.com, Darren Collison was matched up on Love for 14 possessions in the first round and Love only took one shot on those trips down the floor.

The source of Love’s breakout game was two-fold. He was more aggressive when Toronto switched or pinned wings/guards against him and Cleveland was sharper at identifying those mismatches and getting the ball to him.

In the third quarter, when the Cavaliers outscored Toronto 37-24 and transformed a 63-61 halftime deficit into a 98-87 lead, Love got a healthy dose of post touches. Raptors head coach Dwane Casey trotted out a small-ball lineup for much of the period, assigning Miles to Love, which, uh, was ineffective:

With three shooters and LeBron stationed around the perimeter, Toronto is forced to leave Miles on an island. Love, a skilled and willing passer, has the vision to whip the ball to one of them if help comes. Furthermore, an underrated part of these clips is both Kyle Korver and LeBron shrewdly cut through/into the lane, keeping the help-side defender occupied.

After two easy buckets, Pascal Siakam committed too much on the help and LeBron pounced, beelining to the rim, and Love hit him with a bounce pass:

When Love was defended by Toronto’s plodding, throwback center, Jonas Valanciunas, he leveraged his quickness and three-point stroke to draw up easy scores:

Here, there’s a miscommunication on the pick-and-roll coverage between Valanciunas and Anunoby. Valanicunas switches onto LeBron and drops back while Anunoby slides under the screen to cover LeBron. The breakdown leaves Love open for three and Valanciunas, lacking the foot speed to adequately close out, rushes over and bites on Love’s pump-fake, which takes him out of the play. Then, Anunoby attempts to take away the open three, leaving LeBron open with a runway down the middle. Love promptly flips it to The King, who explodes to the rim. Again, note the three shooters around the arc, pulling their men away from the paint.

Below, it’s Anunoby who bites on the shot fake from Love, which leaves Valanciunas with a tough decision. If he closes out, Love can scoot right by; if he stays at home, Love has an uncontested trey:

Other times, Love burned Valanciunas on back cuts when the Lithuanian big pressed up too much on the perimeter:

When Love again beats Valanciunas, it’s largely a product of the fact that he popped out for a three earlier in the quarter on the same play with Jakob Poeltl defending him and J.R. Smith as the screener instead of George Hill. This time, though, as Valanciunas cheats and preps to fight over the screen, Love darts backdoor.

There is more to Kevin Love’s game than spot-up shooting and pick-and-pops. He isn’t a unicorn like Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns or other budding stars, but he does wield a versatile skill set that can pose matchup problems, particularly against teams with traditional centers.

The Cavaliers may closeout Toronto in four games with or without Love maintaining his return to All-Star form, but the Raptors are exactly the type of team who Love can thrive against with more than just his three-point shooting.