It's been 20 months since the Cleveland Cavaliers assembled a roster centered around LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. Since then there have been questions, concerns, and consternation over their fit, on the floor and off. Many of them have been fair, but many of them have probably been over the top. Since coming together, the Cavs have been pretty darn good when they shared the court.
It's the playoffs, though, and with Kevin Love missing out on another All-Star game, and Kyrie Irving failing to build off a sensational season in which he was selected to an All-NBA team, questions were understandable. And while it's likely that at some point in the 2016 playoffs the consternation will return, it won't be after Game one, a 106-101 victory by the Cavs over the Detroit Pistons. Irving and Love were sensational, and it caught the attention of team patriarch LeBron James.
Both Irving and Love cited aggressiveness as a key component in their success, even after Irving started 2-7 from the floor. He ultimately finished with an efficient 31 points on 24 shots. He handed out six assists to just one turnover, and was credited with two steals and a block. He had some disappointing close-outs on Pistons threes in the first half, but coach Tyronn Lue was pleased with his defense.
"Kyrie's defense tonight, you know, I thought he competed."
What caught LeBron James' eye, though, was the way Irving came out of halftime, when the Cavs were down by five.
"We've had horrible third quarters," James said. "Ky didn't allow us to have another one. With how aggressive he was, with the shots that he made, huge shots for our team, huge shots for our momentum. He just controlled the tempo of the game."
While the Cavs would ultimately surrender the comeback Irving, Love, and James led in the third quarter early on in the fourth, it was an important response for the Cavs after their first playoff halftime gut check.
For Kevin Love, it was about showing why the Cavs have invested so much into him, and to remind the world what he can do.
"More than anything, I looked at it as an opportunity. Wanted to come out here and be really aggressive. Just try to be one of the leaders out there."
And while LeBron specifically pointed out a particular stretch of the game for Irving, he was impressed by Love's consistency.
"Kev, at every point in the game, had an impact."
Love not only played in the fourth quarter, he played the entire fourth quarter, and Stan Van Gundy credited his performance at center for a lot of the Pistons troubles. Just weeks after Cavs coach Jim Boylan wrote off such lineups, they are paying off in the big way. The Cavs have flexibility with Tristan Thompson and perhaps Channing Frye to play the center position, but if Love defends like he did today, the Cavs need to maximize his time at center.
The Cavs still need three more wins to get out of the first round, and 15 more for an NBA title, but their chances get a bit better if Irving and Love sustain these efforts.