The Cavaliers are asking everything of LeBron James, per usual. Take the Cavs’ Game 5 win for instance. James finished the game with 44 points and bludgeoned the Pacers with repeated drives to the rim and a 15-15 night at the free throw line. And it still took a buzzer-beater from James for the Cavs to escape with a win.
He needs help. And not just if the Cavs advance and face the Raptors, but right now for Cleveland to have its best odds of getting out of the first round in the first opening round Game 7 of James’ career. That help has to come from Kevin Love.
To say Love been underwhelming this series would be a gross understatement. When he’s posted up against Thad Young, he’s been stonewalled and thrown up bad shot after bad shot. In the Cavs’ six playoffs games, Love is averaging 0.62 points per possession on post-ups vs. 0.98 points per possession, per nba.com/stats.
His three-point shot — something that the Cavs need to keep defenses honest around LeBron — is not falling with any regularity. On spot-ups, Love is averaging 0.82 points per possession — down from 1.27 points per possession in the regular season. And at the same time, his free throw rate has dropped from 36.5 percent to 20.6 percent, per basketball reference. He’s also been less effective as a roll man (0.63 points per possession in the playoffs vs. 1.12 points per possession in the playoffs, per nba.com/stats.) Maybe the thumb injury he suffered on his non-shooting hand earlier in the series is affecting him, but it doesn’t explain everything.
“It could be multiple things,” Lue said about Love’s struggles after Game 6. “You’ve just got to play better.”
It’s not as if Love is missing shots he’s not capable of making, but Indiana —and particularly Young — deserves credit for making his life difficult. When he settles in on the block, Love just hasn’t been strong enough to establish the type of position he likes to or have enough space to take a quick jump shot:
When Young isn’t on the floor, help comes immediately once he makes his move. It hasn’t help that Love hasn’t looked to pass much out of these situations and that the Cavs don’t move around much once the ball gets to Love on the block:
There are openings for Love too. After having Young defend him for most of the series, Nate McMillan started Myles Turner on him to start Game 6. If that happens again in Game 7, the Cavs should run James-Love pick and rolls over and over again. Either outcome — a Love post-up vs. Bojan Bogdanovic or James going one vs. one vs. Turner — works. As brutal as Love post-ups have been this series, he’s supposed to be able to score in those situations.
His struggles also present a challenge for Tyronn Lue, who hasn’t really adjusted Love’s role on the team in the series even as he’s struggled. With how important Game 7 is, and how many issues the Cavs have overall, Sunday has to be about survival, about getting to the next round and worrying about the rest before the next series. Is continuing to feed Love if he’s playing like this a good strategy? Or should his role be shifted entirely to spot-up shooting with the occasional pick-and-roll and post-up mixed in when the right situations present themselves? The former strategy puts even more pressure on LeBron to do everything.
It’s also worth wondering what James is thinking right now. When he came back to Cleveland, Love was part of the package — acquiring him was a necessary step in bringing James home because he thought Love could help him win titles. And while some of Love’s struggles have been overstated in his Cavs tenure, he wasn’t why Cleveland won the 2016 title and has never fully been integrated, and probably never will.
In no way has he been the running mate Kyrie Irving was. With Irving often being overwhelming on offense, it helped make up for the Cavs’ weaknesses. That has never been the case with Love.
“I mean, he’s a huge part of our success or our non-success,” James said after Friday’s Game 6 loss, when Love was 3-10 from the field. “Obviously, we try to go to him, we want to go to him. Obviously, we can’t make the shots for him. He has to step up and knock those down.”