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Well, it’s late January and the Cleveland Cavaliers are eyebrows-deep in the midst of their annual midwinter malaise, so you know what that means: it’s time to blame Kevin Love for something!
The Cavs have lost nine of their last 12, and they got absolutely blasted by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday. Love saw just three minutes and four seconds of floor time in what would go on to be a 24-point drubbing, checking out with 8:56 to go in the opening quarter and missing the rest of the game with an illness. Not only did the four-time All-Star exit the game; he reportedly exited Quicken Loans Arena, heading home after a first half that saw the Cavs give up 76 points to Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and company in a performance that elicited boos from the hometown crowd in Cleveland.
The jeers Love missed on Saturday apparently came his way on Monday, and they came from his fellow dudes in uniform. During what sources described to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN as “a fiery team meeting” before Monday’s practice — which, hey, the Cavs practice now, Isaiah! — several Cleveland players “challenged the legitimacy of” the illness that sidelined him for both the rest of Saturday’s game and the team’s Sunday practice. More from Woj:
Several players were pushing for the Cavaliers’ management and coaching staff to hold Love accountable for leaving the arena before the end of Saturday’s game, and then missing Sunday’s practice, league sources told ESPN.
The meeting was loud and intense, only calming down once Love spoke to those gathered in the room and explained himself, league sources said.
The meeting included Cavaliers coach Ty Lue and general manager Koby Altman, league sources said.
The questions about Love’s absence had “been hanging in [the] air,” a source told Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:
Another source told cleveland.com that virtually everyone on the team was called out at some point during the meeting. […]
Love told reporters after Monday’s practice: “Just got super dizzy, disoriented, didn’t feel right. Went to the bench and we both agreed that maybe we should just give it a few minutes and then just didn’t feel right at halftime. Put Tristan [Thompson] in to start the second half and went from there.”
It didn’t go great from there, as the Thunder kept the pedal to the metal to the tune of 148 points against a Cavaliers defense that has only gotten more punchless and permissive as the season has progressed. That feckless display came on the heels of Cleveland coughing up a 23-point lead to the lowly Orlando Magic before barely getting it together enough to escape with a win.
It was only their third W since Christmas — a span that has seen the three-time-defending Eastern Conference champions get outscored by a whopping 9.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the West-basement-dwelling Sacramento Kings have a worse net rating in that stretch. The OKC debacle was the kind of loss, punctuating a period of overwhelmingly garbage-y play, that incites questions about lineup changes, coaches’ jobs and early playoff exits.
Given the way it’s gone for Cleveland of late, it’s not surprising that things turned ugly on Monday morning. It is a little surprising, though, that the target was Love. (Though, when you think back on Love’s Cavs tenure, maybe it shouldn’t have been.)
All Love’s done this year is accept a shift to center to try to maximize the floor-spacing and offensive punch of these Cavs, and responded with the most productive per-minute and per-possession play of his time in Cleveland. He’s averaging an efficient 18.6 points per game on 45.9 percent shooting and a 40.1 percent mark from 3-point land, pulling down nearly 10 rebounds per game, and continuing to play his brand of effective, low-turnover, complementary ball.
Four days ago, head coach Tyronn Lue was calling for the Cavs to play more frequently through Love — the gifted and versatile big man he famously called a “bad [expletive]” during Cleveland’s run to the 2016 NBA Finals — when they start to stagnate. Now, Love’s teammates are accusing him of faking an injury so he can get out of Dodge. Life comes at you fast in Northeast Ohio, man.
In the big picture, even this putrid run hasn’t doomed the Cavs. They’re still 27-18, still in third place in the East, still only six games back of the top-seeded Boston Celtics with an awful lot of season left to go. But they’re in trouble, and their “prominent” players know it, which is why we’re hearing a lot about DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams, and George Hill, and Kemba Walker, and Kent Bazemore, and Marc Gasol, and Derrick Favors, and 100 other potential midseason acquisitions who might bolster Cleveland’s efforts to make a fourth straight NBA Finals (even if they’re basically playing a different sport than the Golden State Warriors at this point).
The Cavs need something, anything, to try to distract from the reality that, as Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reports LeBron is “privately acknowledging to those around him,” their current state of affairs is “the worst it has been since he returned” to Cleveland. In the absence of an actual reason to believe, maybe an airing of grievances — even small, perhaps ridiculous ones — will suffice in a pinch.
That seems to be the hope in Cleveland, anyway. Woj reports that “there was a sense that the team was largely accepting of Love’s explanation, and that the airing out of issues could have a positive impact on what has become an increasingly fractured locker room.” With no shortage of targets for blame and plenty of work to be done to fix what’s ailing the team that’s had the East in a chokehold for three years running, any sign of hope will have to do for now. But if the Cavs don’t start translating all this talk into meaningful action on the court, then what keeps showing up on film ought to be sickening enough to ensure that neither Love nor anybody else in wine and gold has to go around faking any time soon.
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