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On Kevin Love showing up, and the Cavs still needing more

Game 1 was Love’s best game against the Warriors, but he needs to be better.

NBA: Finals-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Love’s performance in Thursday’s Game 1 was his best-ever Finals game against the Warriors. Not that it’s a high bar to clear — he missed the entire 2015 Finals and redeemed himself last year with a single play in Game 7 — but Game 1 was progress.

Love finished with 15 points and 21 rebounds and was 3-6 from three. He got to the foul line four times too, making all four attempts. Defensively, while slow getting back when Golden State pushed off turnovers and struggling to contain Stephen Curry, he made an effort to alter shots inside. On that end, that’s all the Cavs can ask for.

But Love can be better on offense, and the Cavs will need him to be if they are to win Game 2 and win the series. In Game 1, Love took seven shots in the paint. He made one. And he didn’t struggle because Draymond Green ate him up either. Instead, Love failed to capitalize on mismatches against Golden State’s guards.

Take these first quarter shots against Klay Thompson for instance. Thompson is a bigger guard, and he deserves credit for defending Love so closely and so physically. But Love has to convert those opportunities. They are what keep him on the floor, what makes him playable in series full of bad matchups for him.

His first miss, where the Cavs orchestrated a play to get him on Thompson, he ended up completely missing after losing his dribble with little time left on the shot clock and Thompson closing out on him.

On his second miss, he misses a fadeaway from the left block after getting a chance to properly post up on Thompson. It’s not a bad shot, but it’s also settling. There was time left on the shot clock to get a better shot. And Love would be able to pass out of the post — something he’s really good at and something the Cavs have generally underutilized — to an open shooter if Zaza Pachulia came all of the way over to double like he seemed to be.

In the second quarter, Love got the exact mismatch the Cavs want for him: Curry, who is seven inches and 61 pounds smaller than Love. On the right block, he posts up. Getting blocked by Green can be excused. But he misses two more shots and the Warriors get the ball back. At this point, while Cleveland fell apart in the second quarter, they were only down seven. If Love scores here, it’s only a five point game.

Love making all of these shots wouldn’t have changed the outcome of game entirely. If the Cavs are going to win Game 2, and the series, it’ll involve Love playing better, them not allowing Kevin Durant to dunk so easily and the team not turning the ball over 20 times. Cleveland’s margins are small. When every little thing goes wrong, it adds up. Against the Warriors, that’s death.

But moments like this are also why the Cavs acquired Love in the first place. As part of the Cavs’ “Big Three”, his job is to provide floor spacing for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, be a low-post scoring punch, rebound at an elite level and start fastbreaks with outlet passes. He checked three of those boxes in Game 1.

In the post in this year’s playoffs, he’s averaging .96 points per possession on post-ups — up from .81 last year. Across the board, he’s scoring 2.3 more points per game, shooting six percent better from the field, 6.3 percent better from three while shooting less overall and from three. He’s also pulling down 3.3 more rebounds per game than last year.

This has been Love’ best postseason to date. He’s fit in better, made more of an impact and filled the role he’s been asked to while maximizing his chances. Now, after a Game 1 where he struggled to take advantage of every opportunity, the Cavs will have a better chance to win Game 2 if they get a better performance from Love.