Either Kevin Love has one of the most fragile psyches in the NBA, particularly among those with All-Star caliber gifts, or media coverage of his slump in the middle of the Eastern Conference finals is more about their timing than his.
Love played badly in Games 3 and 4 against the Raptors in Toronto Saturday and Monday, then fired back with an outstanding Game 5 in the Cavaliers’ home rout to take a 3-2 lead into Game 6 Friday night back at Air Canada Centre (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Love went from 13 total points on 5-for-23 shooting on the Raptors’ court to 25 points with 8-for-10 accuracy at Quicken Loans Arena Wednesday. He was the Cavs’ focal point early, as he routinely has been this season in their attempts to get him going early. And this time, as it had frequently during Cleveland’s 10-0 start to the playoffs, it worked.
Afterward, though, so much of the focus was put on Love’s personal ordeal and pep talks he got from teammates and from coach Tyronn Lue in the two days prior to Game 5. Fellow stretch-big man Channing Frye was helpful, Love mentioned to reporters. Lue, too, helped boost Love’s spirits and focus. Meanwhile LeBron James, the team’s leader, spoke from experience about the tough times a talented player endures when he feels he might be letting his crew down.
“It’s very difficult and you feel like you’re by yourself,” James said from the postgame podium. “I’ve been there before, when you’re a big part of a puzzle and things just don’t go the way you either dreamed about or the way you thought it was going to be. You feel like you’re by yourself for 24 or 48 hours or however long the case may be. To see him come out the way he did [in Game 5], just aggressive [in the low post] … we continued to go to him.”
But this is about Love, the same fellow who spoke frequently through the playoffs’ first month about a conversation he’d had with Lue in late March. The same fellow whose confidence and trust were buoyed when Lue was promoted to replace David Blatt as Cavs coach. Now he needed an intervention of sorts in the 48 hours between Game 4 and Game 5?
Draymond Green had two nightmarish games for Golden State in the West finals and created an outrageous distraction with his kick to Steven Adams‘ groin, yet none of the Warriors was questioning Green’s status in their pecking order. Love does the same – no groin kick, but forgettable performances – and it’s time for another referendum on his fit and long-term viability in Cleveland?
Maybe more that the networks and national media are just now paying attention.
Veteran Cleveland forward Richard Jefferson, as reported by the Akron Beacon Journal, saw folks reaching for a storyline at Love’s expense.
“He doesn’t have anything to make up for. No disrespect to anybody here, but that all a bunch of media B.S., if you ask me,” Jefferson said in the hallway at Quicken Loans Arena. “The guy had a bad game. We’d won 10 straight. He can have a bad game. Was he the only one who didn’t shoot the ball well? No. Was he the only person that might have struggled a little bit defensively? It looked like [Raptors point guard] Kyle Lowry had 30-something points.
“As a group it was never him, it was never one individual. That was who was going to be the fall guy in the media’s eyes. We didn’t view it that way. Yes, we wanted him to play better, we all did. But he didn’t need to prove anything to us. He’d had eight double-doubles in the first 10 games. We were a little taken aback that everyone thought it was his fault.”
Love pitched in 12 points in the first quarter – going 4 for 4 from the field and 2 for 2 from 3-point range. His first shot was an 8-foot turnaround hook, his second a 26-foot 3-pointer. He added a 14-foot fade, two free throws and another 3, then finished the quarter with two blocks of Cory Joseph in the final two seconds.
“He’s an offensive force down low,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “We’ve done a good job on him the entire series. He gets it going, and we’ve got to meet his force with our force and do a better job of one-on-one defense with him in the low post and not just look at him out on the 3-point line.”
If Love performs poorly in Game 6 Friday and Cleveland loses, will it just be about a basketball failing? Or will the onus be on him again, to the point he’ll need a booster shot of motivational chatter for Game 7 Sunday?
A better question might be: How will the media folks get their psychotherapist couches through U.S./Canada customs in time to do their jobs?