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The Curious Case of Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson

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The Warriors’ addition of Kevin Durant has completely changed the complexity of how the Cavs and Warriors match-up.

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Four Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

We all remember the clichés that seemingly became constants from the last two NBA Finals matchups between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Tristan Thompson is a matchup nightmare for the Warriors. They have no one that can stop him from doing whatever he wants on the inside.”

Kevin Love is borderline unplayable and appears to be more of a liability than an asset against the Warriors.”

In the first two Finals matchups between the Cavs and Warriors, those hypothetical statements rung true. The Warriors had no one to contest Tristan Thompson on the boards, and his defensive versatility made him not only valuable, but a totally essential and indispensable piece for the Cavs’ championship formula.

On the flip side, Kevin Love suffered a concussion in Game 2 of the 2016 NBA Finals and only averaged 8.5 points per game on 36 percent shooting (and 26 percent from three) for the series, and this was after missing the entire 2015 NBA Finals with a dislocated shoulder. While it’s hard to tell if his down performance in the Finals was due to the concussion, the regular season matchups with the Warriors indicated Draymond Green was a matchup nightmare for him, and he’s mostly been ineffective against the Warriors compared with the output we’re accustomed to seeing from him against the league’s 28 other teams.

Now let’s talk about the 2017 NBA Finals. Go back to those hypothetical statements up at the top. Now switch Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson’s names with one another.

See anything interesting? Those statements are now true based on what we’ve seen in the first two games of the 2017 NBA Finals.

Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson have seen a role reversal in these Finals. You may be thinking it’s as simple as K-Love stepping up for this challenge and Tristan not playing with his usual tireless motor on both ends, but it’s not that simple. It’s actually simpler than that.

The Golden State Warriors replaced Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant. It’s really that simple.

Durant being in the lineup for Barnes has completely changed the dynamic of this matchup. In the last two NBA Finals, Harrison Barnes would be a player largely ignored by the Cavs on defense, as they gave most of their attention on that end to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. If Harrison Barnes got an open look, the Cavs would live with it.

The same strategy *could* be used on Kevin Durant, but only if you really want to lose.

When the Warriors added Durant without losing any of their previous offensive firepower, it added a layer to the equation that the Cavs simply weren’t prepared to match. This Cavs team is already lacking in defensive difference-makers, so the prospect of having to slow down arguably the two most explosive offensive threats in the NBA in a seven-game series is quite a daunting task. The fact of the matter is adding a player of Durant’s caliber completely shifts the complexity of how these teams match-up.

Last season, the Cavs could hide LeBron on defense, whether it be on Barnes, Green, or Andre Iguodala, in order to conserve his energy for the offensive end while allowing him to play off the ball and make him more of a threat to force turnovers or make plays on defense. Now, the Cavs don’t really have anyone that can check Durant on defense outside of LeBron, so he’s been forced to take on that matchup in this series, and you’ve seen how exhausted LeBron has looked at the end of these first two games.

Through the first two games of these Finals, Tristan has 8 points and 8 rebounds in 44 minutes. For comparison’s sake, Steph Curry is averaging 8 rebounds per game in this series thus far, so it’s pretty clear Tristan’s impact on this series has been negligible, to say the least.

The Cavs put Tristan on Draymond in Game 1, and the results were very below par, mainly due to Draymond taking Tristan away from the basket, where he’s at his most effective. They tried putting him on Durant for spells in Game 2, and that didn’t work either. With how these two teams match-up at the forward and center spots (Durant-Green-Pachulia vs LeBron-Love-Thompson), Tristan is basically forced to take on one of those two match-ups defensively. Kevin Love is the weakest defender of that group and basically has to matchup with Zaza Pachulia defensively, forcing Tristan to match-up with either Draymond or Durant.

Suffice it to say he’s struggled to adjust.

Kevin Love, on the other hand, has thrived in these Finals. Through the first two games, he’s averaging 21 points and 14 rebounds per game on 44 percent shooting (and 39 percent from three). Quite frankly, Love has looked like the Cavs’ only playable big in this series thus far. That obviously has to change for the Cavs to have a chance to come back in this series, but it’s encouraging to see Love stepping up in this series.

That being said, it does beg the question: what’s changed? I think a lot of what we’ve seen from him is a combination of a boost in confidence from last year’s Finals, more effective utilization on the offensive end, and his health being in good order.

When the Cavs are getting Love the ball in these Finals, they’re trying to force mismatches so whenever he gets post touches, he has a favorable matchup. Gone are the days of trying to post up on Draymond Green (unless it’s right near the basket). It’s taken a couple years, but the Cavs finally figured out how to get Love involved in the offense without disrupting their flow, and Love has taken full advantage in these Finals thus far. His rebounding has been tremendous, his shooting has been much-needed, and his increased defensive effort has been a welcome surprise.

Needless to say, these were not developments we were expecting headed into these Finals. It shows, win or lose, the Cavs need to go into this summer knowing what needs to be done to more effectively match-up with this Warriors team. Hoping to surpass them in talent would be a fruitless endeavor due to the Cavs’ lack of roster and cap flexibility, and this Warriors team won’t be going away any time soon. The Cavs will never be able to out-talent these Warriors, but they just might be able to win enough match-ups to make it interesting in the years ahead.

Simply put, this Cavs roster was assembled to beat last year’s Warriors. When they added Kevin Durant, everything changed. For this series, the Cavs will once again have to overcome the odds against a superior team, but hopefully this series will give us a better indication of what needs to be done for the Cavs to compete with this team in the years to come, because it seems more and more apparent that this will not be the final clash between these two basketball titans.