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Through five games, it's fair to say that the 2016 NBA Finals have not exactly gone how Kevin Love might have hoped.
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Everyone knew heading into the rematch with the Golden State Warriors that Love, who had settled into a tertiary role in the Cleveland Cavaliers' high-powered offense and had struggled mightily during the regular season defending the Warriors' bread-and-butter Stephen Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll, would be under the microscope throughout his first appearance in the Finals. His performance hasn't stood up to that increased scrutiny, though that hasn't entirely been his fault; after putting up 17 points and 13 rebounds but stumbling defensively in a Game 1 loss, Love took an elbow to the head midway through Game 2 that landed him in the NBA's concussion protocol, knocked him out of Game 3, and had him coming off the bench in Game 4.
He returned to the starting five for Game 5 ... and despite the absence of both soul-crushing defender Draymond Green due to suspension and interior bruiser Andrew Bogut due to injury, put up just two points on 1-for-5 shooting with just three rebounds in 33 minutes. The Cavs won Game 5, extending the series behind unbelievable performances from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, so Love's stat line was less of a postgame talking point than was his apparent upbraiding by James over a defensive lapse that went viral:
As Love explained it, his diminutive production stemmed less from an individual lack of quality than from a collective plan of attack that prioritized spacing the floor so that LeBron and Kyrie could attack the middle of a compromised defense.
"When Bogut went down, I think our primary option was for those guys to play downhill and attack the paint and the rim," Love said. "So for me, yeah, it was just kind of — I know it's funny to say, but run in the corner, let those guys do their thing, and on the defensive end try to apply myself as much as I could."
Tactics only explain so much, though, and Love's continuing quiet play certainly hasn't escaped the notice of many Cavs fans ... including the enterprising internet denizen who decided to launch a GoFundMe crowdfunding page aimed at raising $10 million to convince Love to sit out Game 6. As of press time, the effort still had juuuuuuust a bit further to go:
The most amazing thing, of course, is that 12 people contributed a total of $60 to the cause ... especially since Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue made it clear immediately after Game 5 that he'd be turning right back to Love:
With Draymond Green returning for Game 6, Tyronn Lue says Kevin Love will remain in the starting lineup.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) June 14, 2016
The wisdom of that decision is up for debate. For one thing, Cleveland's most effective lineup in this series has been the starting four of James, Irving, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson with Richard Jefferson in Love's place. For another, Love's shooting just 22.2 percent from the field when Draymond's on the court in this series, as he will be from the opening tip on Thursday, and Love seemed to have a greater impact coming off the bench in Game 4 (11 points on 3-for-6 shooting, five rebounds and a block in 25 minutes) than he did as a starter in Games 2 or 5.
Even so, Lue and the rest of the Cavs doubled down on their support for keeping Love in the mix ahead of Thursday's must-win Game 6 back at Quicken Loans Arena.
"No, Kevin will be fine," Smith said. "It's just one game, and fortunately we came out with the W. I mean, we talk about it all the time. When the Heat won their back-to-back championships, the second championship Chris Bosh had zero points and nobody said nothing. So I don't see why it's a big deal with Kev if he goes out there and has two."
Though it glosses over just how poorly things went when the ball swung Love's way in Game 5 — Cleveland shot 4-of-11 overall with five turnovers on plays in which Love touched the ball, according to ESPN Stats & Information — and though it kind of gives Bosh's all-court talents and the masterwork he did in that Game 7 short shrift, that reading makes some sense. Still, it raised some eyebrows for Lue to go so far as to call Love's Game 5 performance "great."
"I mean, defensively he did a lot of good things," Lue told reporters. "Offensively we have two guys that did something that hasn't been done in NBA history: two guys score 40 points in a single [NBA Finals] game. So there wasn't a lot of room or a lot of shots for a lot of other guys because they had a special moment. So it's hard enough to win a game in a regular season and then to win a game in the NBA Finals and guys are focused on Kevin not scoring the basketball. He did a lot of great things."
Whether he can continue to do them with Green back on the floor and in line to play major minutes remains to be seen. From James' perspective, as long as Love remains aggressive in the opportunities he does get, the Cavaliers will be fine.
"You know, from the defensive side of the floor and the offensive side of the floor, go out and make an impact on the game," James said. "No matter if he's not scoring, no matter if at times he feels like he's not getting touches. We all just need to continue to be aggressive. He needs to be aggressive to help us try to send this game back to Golden State."
For whatever reason, whether due to a deterioration of individual talent, or a nightmarish matchup, or a well-hidden injury, or some combination of all of the above, the guy we see suiting up for the Cavs right now doesn't seem capable of the kind of superstar turn that can tilt the Finals on its head; at this point, it feels like the ship on Love breaking out with a 35-point, 15-rebound, five-assist performance has long since sailed. With Irving incinerating every defender in his path to the tune of 35 points and six assists on 55.8/50/90 shooting splits over the past three games and LeBron standing as the most productive closeout game player of all time, he doesn't have to give them that ... but he has to give them something.
Relying on James and Irving to once again generate nearly 90 percent of Cleveland's offense against a Warriors team that has arguably its most important player back in the fold seems like a recipe for watching the Warriors celebrate on the court at the Q for the second straight year. Even in a diminished and muted form, Love's the most likely candidate to lessen their load; if he can do that, the Cavs' chances of fighting off a second straight closeout to force a winner-take-all Game 7 back at Oracle Arena on Sunday figure to improve significantly.
"I think he's looking forward to the challenge," James said. "I think he's looking forward to the moment. We definitely need him [...] We definitely need Kev to play better. We want him to play better, but we don't want to add no more stress on him or added pressure. We just want him to go out and play, just let it hang out."
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