the return of LeBron James after a midseason siesta, a pair of trades that infused new blood into their rotation, and some brilliant offensive basketball from Kyrie Irving, the Cleveland Cavaliers have caught fire, winning 13 of their last 14 games to vault from a game under .500 to a half-game out of the Central Division lead after Sunday's smackdown of the visiting Los Angeles Lakers. These are high times in Ohio, which is word to Oscar Robertson, and everything in Cleveland sure seems like it should be copacetic ... so what the hell's going on with LeBron James and Kevin Love?
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Less than a week after attributing Love's first-half offensive struggles to a lack of confidence, which Love promptly denied, James again raised eyebrows. This time, the curiosity-piquer was the tweet James fired off on Saturday, after the Cavs' winning-streak-snapping Friday night loss to the Indiana Pacers, which saw Love score just five points on 2-for-8 shooting and admit that trying to find his place in the Cavs' offense has been "one of the toughest situations [he's] had to deal with" in his career:
If those word choices — "fit out" and "fit in" — seem familiar to you, then you probably remember reading this October ESPN.com piece by Dave McMenamin in which Love discussed the challenge of carving out his own niche in the Cavaliers' structure after the offseason trade that imported him from the Minnesota Timberwolves:
"I'm comfortable and just not trying to, I guess, fit in so much," Love said after the game. "I had a talk with the guys on the plane ride over (to Brazil) and also at different practices off the floor and they told me to fit out. Just be myself.
"I kind of laughed and smirked at that. Off the court, I never have any problems with that. But on the court, it's just us having so many weapons and being able to fit together out there on the floor ... You always say check your egos at the door but we also need to bring our egos with us because that's what makes us so great. We wouldn't be here without them."
Back to the present tense. Love looked like the All-NBA floor-stretching fire of old on Sunday, scoring a season-high 32 points on 11-for-18 shooting, including a blistering 7-for-8 mark from 3-point range, to go with 10 rebounds, three assists and just one turnover in 34 1/2 minutes of work. For what it's worth, three of those made triples came off LeBron assists, and two of Love's three dimes set up baskets by James, who finished with 22 points on 8-for-16 shooting, 10 rebounds, eight assists and a steal (albeit with six turnovers) in 30 minutes of floor time in the runaway 120-105 win.
"We wanted to keep going to him," James said after the game, according to Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group. "I drew up a few sets for him in timeout. He had the hot hand and I wanted to keep going to him."
"It's huge," Love said of LeBron looking his way, according to McMenamin. "Whether I'm running the floor and ducking in or he's calling a play for me to get it inside or out, he's one of the best in the league at setting guys up. So when I'm on the other end of that and it's a crisp pass coming from him, it's going to be a good look."
So, everything's cool, right?
After the game, James downplayed the post-Pacers tweet ... before playing it up again ... before later downplaying it again. This is confusing, so let's let Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal lay it out:
The use of “fit in” and “fit out,” plus the emphasis on both (all caps) seemed a bit too similar to be coincidental. Yet when he was asked about it while surrounded by the large media contingent, James denied he was aiming the tweet at any one specific person.
“It was more about people in general,” James said. “It was a general thought I had. Obviously whatever thought I have people try to encrypt it and Da Vinci code it and all that stuff. People are always trying to fit out instead of fit in and be part of something special. That’s what it’s all about.”
After the large pack of cameras and recorders dissipated, a few of the regular beat writers stuck around a few extra minutes. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, who used the original “fit in/fit out” Love quote in an October story for ESPN, showed James the original quote. He smiled.
When we pressed him on it some more, James laughed and said, “It’s not a coincidence, man.”
I was shocked. McMenamin was shocked. No recorders were running, no cameras were live. It was just some guys standing around talking. The conversation continued for a few more minutes before James dressed and headed for the door. I stopped him just to be clear.
“When we’re standing around BSing like that, do you consider it on the record or off the record?” I asked. James responded: “Ain’t nothing off the record. I know everything that comes out of my mouth. If I say it, it’s on the record.” Then he pointed at McMenamin and walked out of the locker room.
OK, so LeBron was talking about Love in the "fit out/fit in" tweet, right? (Also, LeBron, people are most certainly not "always trying to fit out," because "fit out" is not a thing, even remotely.)
Well, no. At least, not according to what the four-time MVP tweeted Monday:
[winces, pinches bridge of nose, massages temples]
OK, so less than a week after suggesting his struggling power forward needs more confidence and emphasizing the importance of individual-for-team sacrifice to laughable degrees, LeBron denies subtweeting Love about being part of something special, then acknowledges that nothing he says or writes is coincidental, and then laughs off reports saying as much by the media members he directly spoke to about it? Um ... why? To what end?
If James is indeed so exacting and calculating in his decision-making and communication, then what's the point of all this? If, as both Lloyd and McMenamin suggest, there's nothing malicious behind James' comments, then what's the endgame here? Why take the time out during a hot stretch, and especially after arguably the struggling player's best game of the season, to fuel this particular fire?
Apparently, we aren't the only ones confused — Love's not too sure what's up with all this, either, according to Lloyd:
Love was the last one to speak after the game. I didn’t want to embarrass him or put him on the spot in front of everyone, so when the crowd dispersed I filled him in. He had no idea what I was talking about so I showed him James’ tweet and explained James’ “it’s not a coincidence” remark.
“I feel like I’ve done all the right things. I haven’t got upset or been down,” Love said. “There’s moments when I hope I would’ve played better but it’s a long, long season. I don’t know really what he’s talking about. I feel like I’ve sacrificed and I think everyone knows that. I’m not trying to downplay what he said, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job of trying to help this team.”
Well, evidently, "pretty good" isn't good enough. LeBron seems to be making it clear that anything less than total buy-in to his program — which seems to include not copping to it being hard to adjust to getting fewer touches and shots in places you're accustomed to getting them, something that Chris Bosh said this fall he believed would be a major hurdle for Love to leap in building Cleveland's new Big Three — is unacceptable, and that the time is now for all those who want to compete for championships to fall in line behind LeBron's leadership.
There's no doubting that James has infinitely more high-level experience than Love, Irving or anyone else on the Cleveland roster beyond former Miami running buddies Mike Miller and James Jones and victory-lapping wing Shawn Marion; LeBron's run his teams to five Finals trips, after all, while Love and Irving have yet to play a single postseason second. But in a season that's already seen LeBron decide to get passive and go into "chill mode," it's worth wondering whether his chosen method of leading in this particular instance — passive-aggressiveness followed by denial followed by admission followed by brushing it off — is the course of action most likely to build the sort of cohesion that seems to propel good teams to victory during the fighting-in-the-phone-booth seven-game slugfests that will stand between the Cavs and the O'Brien.
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