INDEPENDENCE, Ohio – Kevin Love isn’t naïve enough to believe that the player-hater’s ball has suddenly shut down operations just because he tap-danced, slid and recovered long enough to halt Stephen Curry’s tying 3-point attempt in the final minute of Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Questions about whether Love is fitting out or fitting in won’t end just because he was the first person LeBron James chose to hug and douse with tears immediately after the horn sounded on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first NBA championship. And, the special-made WWE championship belt that Love wore on Instagram and slung over his shoulder during the parade down East 9th Street won’t serve as a shield to the trade speculation and second-guessing that has shrouded his time in Cleveland.
Love expects more of the same as the Cavaliers begin their title defense. But the ring that Love will soon flash to any detractors has given him a defiant new attitude about how he will respond to the noise.
“I don’t think [the criticism will] ever leave,” Love said, “but frankly, I don’t really give [an expletive].”
As one of the handpicked running mates for James’ second super team, Love came to the Cavaliers three summers ago as almost a package deal with the homecoming King, a ready-made and proven commodity to hasten James’ championship pursuits even though it came at the expense of the talented and highly touted Andrew Wiggins. But sharing the floor with James and another ball-dominant player in Kyrie Irving hasn’t always been the easiest adjustment for Love, who was granted a buffet of shots and rebounds while earning three All-Star appearances in Minnesota.
Love’s inability to come close to duplicating his gaudy Timberwolves statistics made him an easy target for derision and blame whenever the All-Star alliance sputtered. And his guarded, often surly demeanor contributed to concern over whether Love was comfortable with the arrangement. The slightest hint of unhappiness got rumor mills churning and opened up hope for fans of some star-deprived franchises that a former high-scoring double-double machine could be had with the right combination of draft picks and serviceable talent.
“It’ll never be gone. It’s just something that you live with. We have so much hype and media, and the good and the bad surrounding this team, and it just comes with the territory,” Love said. “Trade rumors, I don’t know. We lose a couple of games … I don’t know. I’m here, man, and I plan on being here a long time.”
After spending the offseason in Park City, Utah, utilizing elevation training to prepare for another grind, Love arrived for his third training camp with the Cavaliers in the best shape of his career. Love heeded the advice of former 22-year NBA veteran Kevin Willis to “eat that iron” and stay in the weight room and listened to “the man in the mirror” who informed him that his unruly beard needed a bit of a trim. The new look was for his own preservation and vanity but also revealed how much Love is looking beyond the endless, trivial chatter of the past.
“He’s the same Kev to me,” James said. “Maybe he’s different to you guys because you guys bring up that notion [that he’s uncomfortable in Cleveland]. No one wants to hear that right now. He’s a huge piece to our team, he’s one of our Big Three, and when we all perform well, you see what happens. You see in Game 7 when we all came to play, played at a high level, so we were able to bring that home.”
James’ brilliance and determination to keep his promise to Northeast Ohio overshadowed any other shortcomings and made champions out of all of the Cavaliers. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that James, Irving and Love all teamed up for that unforgettable sequence of events that allowed Cleveland to edge the 73-win Golden State Warriors in that Game 7 thriller. James’ block, Irving’s shot and Love’s stop all carry special meaning for Cavaliers fans, though Love said on media day that his defensive play ranks a distant third on the most memorable moments of that night. Love added that the championship has emboldened him.
Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski “actually said something to me in 2010 and 2012. In 2010, saying, ‘Nobody can take away you being a world champion.’ And 2012, ‘Nobody can take away you being an Olympian.’ So, it felt a lot like that,” Love said this week. “Playing for your country is one thing, but also the biggest stage here, you grow up, wanting to make a big play in the final minutes of a Game 7 and going up against a great team like the Warriors. So much weight in that moment. It feels great to wake up every day and be a champion.”
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said it “looks like the monkey is off [Love’s] back because he won the championship.”
“When you have three great players, everybody is not going to have the ball and have the same numbers they had on other teams,” Lue said. “Just like when Chris Bosh went to Miami. That’s how we’ve got to treat Kevin, the same way. I’m not saying he’s not a great player. It’s just, he’s the one who has to sacrifice. And to win, you’ve got to do that.”
Love has been rewarded with a ring for taking a step back but he hasn’t forgotten about being asked if he was committed to Cleveland after initially accepting the deal, how his first season after signing a five-year extension included more inquires about his future, and how even in the NBA Finals – when a concussion limited his effectiveness – he continued to hear that his time was expired. Bosh warned Love of the difficult adjustment in being the third piece in a three All-Star collective. And, Love witnessed how Bosh continued to absorb unfair volumes of criticism even after winning two titles in Miami. So, instead of worrying about finally holding off the hate, Love has dedicated himself to adding more jewelry – and perhaps, more belts – to his collection.
“I think everybody is very hungry,” Love said. “Hanging a banner is huge for us. Now it’s back to work and we’ll do it all over again.”
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