Kevin Love entered Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals primed to be basketball watchers' primary punching bag if the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors for the second straight season. The clear No. 3 man in Cleveland's Big Three had struggled mightily to defend the Warriors' bread-and-butter Stephen Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll and, thanks in part to a Game 2 concussion that knocked him out of Game 3 and had him coming off the bench in Game 4, had authored a series quiet enough to make many wonder whether the version of Love who once produced monster scoring and rebounding numers in Minnesota was lost and gone for good.
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Heading into Game 7, the former All-NBA power forward had averaged just 8.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and one assist in 25.6 minutes per Finals game. While LeBron James and Kyrie Irving turned in Herculean efforts to lift the Cavs out of a 3-1 hole and get them within one win of the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history, Love had shot 36.8 percent from the floor and 31.3 percent from 3-point land in the series, and gone just 2-for-8 in Cleveland's wins in Games 5 and 6. As big and bad as it got, though — and with Cavs fans trying to crowdfund a purse big enough to convince him to sit out, it got pretty bad — Love tried to keep things small and simple.
"Well, I never got really trapped by the dogma and living with the results of other people's thinking," Love told reporters Sunday. "I just continue to fight through it, and knew that tonight I just had to have one great game."
Love was good, for sure, and better than he'd been since Game 1 — nine points on 3-for-9 shooting, 14 rebounds (as many as he'd had in Games 2 through 6 combined), three assists, two steals and just one turnover in 30 minutes — but he didn't have a great game on Sunday. He did, however, make one great play. One bit of poetry that gave him and the Cavaliers a glorious ending decades in the making.
On the play that made him a meme in January, Kevin Love got the stop he needed more than oxygen, allowing Cleveland to finally exhale.
After Irving drilled a cold-blooded pull-up 3-pointer over the top of Curry to give Cleveland a 92-89 lead with 53 seconds remaining, Warriors coach Steve Kerr chose not to call a timeout, preventing the Cavaliers from getting their half-court defense set, as Irving backtracked to pick up Curry. With Steph dribbling up top, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green engaged in a quick off-ball screen, which Cleveland switched, putting Love, who had been guarding Iguodala, on Green. That opened the door for Green to set a high screen for Curry, forcing a second switch that would put Love one-on-one with the back-to-back MVP nearly 30 feet away from the hoop, with nothing but space and opportunity to attack.
Love, though, was the aggressor, attacking the screen by quickly stepping out to take away Curry's airspace, tracking Steph all the way out to the "S" in the Warriors' halfcourt logo as he dribbled to his left:
Curry briefly cleared some room to maneuver with a behind-the-back left-to-right dribble that looked like it caught Love off-balance:
But Love kept moving his feet, hustled to recover and stayed on Curry's left hip as he dribbled right, sticking with him enough to influence him away from pulling up as soon as he approached the arc:
Love's presence forced Curry to put the ball back down on the deck, pull it back and eventually pass it off to Green on the right wing. Pinned along the sideline by Irving with his back to the basket, he had no option but to kick it back out to Curry, now standing about two steps in front of halfcourt with seven left on the shot clock.
Steph definitely thought about pulling the trigger from there:
... but instead he tried to pump and go, heading back to his left before pulling another left-to-right crossover to try to shake free. Again, Love hung tough and stayed connected:
... allowing him to get a good contest on the 26-foot prayer that Curry lofted up with 4.6 seconds left on the shot clock:
It's a shot Steph's made many times before, but this time, his call to the basketball gods went unanswered. LeBron pulled down his 11th rebound of a game for the ages that would end with his third NBA Finals MVP award. The Warriors' dream of a second straight NBA championship to cap the greatest regular season in NBA history had all but died ... and so, too, had Kevin Love's NBA Finals nightmare.
"I was searching for a three and rushed and didn't take what was there, which was probably better to go around him and try to get into the paint," Curry told reporters after one of the most crushing defeats in Finals history. "That's basically it."
It sounds like a small thing — don't bite on the fakes, stay down, defend without fouling — but it isn't, and it's why so many left Love for dead both before and during this series. When the Warriors targeted their favorite mismatch one last time, though, and when Cavaliers needed it most — when there was absolutely no option but to make it work — Love met the moment, rose to the occasion, and got the stop.
"I knew it was a big possession for us," said Love, who finished a game-high plus-19 in his 30 minutes of work, during a postgame interview with NBA TV. "I knew if we were able to get the stop, that was going to put us in a great position to win the game. [...] I had to do my part, and this was a big possession for us, and I was able to force a very tough contested shot."
Thirty seconds later, Love was an NBA champion.
... and shortly thereafter, he celebrated like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, because of course he did:
The last two years, marked by injury, internal turmoil and at-times inconsistent play, probably haven't gone exactly how Love imagined them when the trade that ended his tenure with the Timberwolves went down. That ending, though? Seems like the way he drew it up.
"You talk about vindication — this is the main reason that I came here and wanted to come here, because I knew we'd have a great shot to win a title," he said after the game. "Last year, I felt like it was taken away from me, especially with the injury. This year got to have my first real playoff run, and it ended the way I wanted it to, and we all wanted it to."
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