Lost Love in Cleveland

CLEVELAND — Kevin Love, you imagine, has to be pretty sick of his name. How can he not be? He has spent his life as a professional basketball player being bombarded by puns. It must be a burden to have every great thing you do (Season of Love! Love Conquers All!) and every lousy thing you do (Bad Love! Lost Love!) reduced to a pithy newspaper headline.

But let’s not kid anybody: The Cavaliers gambled big on Kevin Love in their all-out effort to finally win Cleveland a championship. And here we are, almost two years later, pun or not, and the Cavaliers still want to know what Love is.

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Monday, in Cleveland, something thoroughly unexpected happened: The Cavaliers failed to show up for what had looked like a huge NBA Finals rematch with Golden State. The NBA regular season can seem mind-numbingly unimportant. Every NBA fan already knows the narrative. The best teams are all in the West, with Golden State as the Harlem Globetrotters (fun and practically unbeatable), San Antonio reprising its role as under-appreciated deities, Oklahoma City geared up to crash the party and the Los Angeles Clippers eager to leave behind their doomed history.

Then, in the bleak East, the Cleveland Cavaliers seem the best team by default, the one-eyed team in the kingdom of the blind. The Cavs appear destined to slog through the mild jungle of Bulls and Raptors and Hawks, only to get annihilated once they reach the Finals against the survivor of the West.

With that story all but written, what’s left? We just have to wait and endure three or so months of semi-entertaining filler before we get to the good stuff.

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Monday’s game, though, promised to be more than filler. People in Cleveland certainly believed that. There’s more than a little bit of concern building in a city that has not won a championship in more than 50 years. LeBron James returned two years ago and brought hope. But that hope has been tempered by some spotty play and, more, by the emergence of the Golden State Warriors.

“We’ve got to send a message,” the man at the hotel bell stand said. Everywhere I went in Cleveland, taxi drivers and store owners and waiters and police officers and fundraisers said something like this. The Cavaliers HAD to send a message.

“Look at what Curry said about champagne,” one security guard outside the arena said.

Yes, well, there was that. Warrior King Steph Curry had joked that he hoped the Cleveland locker room still smelled of champagne. He was, of course, referring to the Warriors popping champagne last year after beating the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Curry later clarified (“I meant no disrespect”), but he unconsciously had touched upon a deep fear locked in the Cleveland fans’ psyche, a fear that even with LeBron, this Cavaliers team just ain’t good enough.

Then Monday’s game happened. Golden State’s 34-point stomping of the Cavaliers on Monday night was James’ worst-ever home loss, and that includes his early years in Cleveland when he had nobody around him. But it was worse than that. In NBA games, teams never just blow out other good teams from beginning to end. At some point in the game, the losing team will stir, make a small run, hit a couple of 3-pointers and give the fans a jolt of false hope, even it only lasts two or three minutes.

This game did not have that two- or three-minute spell of hope. Golden State jumped out to a quick lead. The Warriors led by 13 points after one quarter, by 26 at halftime and by 37 after three quarters. The Warriors found open looks whenever they wanted. They played a swarming defense, making the Cavaliers brick tough shots. They never let the Cavaliers — or Cavs fans — breathe.

“They just came in and kicked our ass,” was the succinct summary of Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving. Over in the Golden State locker room, Warriors players gleefully downplayed the significance of the victory (“They’re not going to be intimidated,” Draymond Green said) because they could afford to be magnanimous. They had proved their point.

Meanwhile, over on the Cleveland side, all was self-reflection and despair. Players talked about how much better they have to get. Coach David Blatt fell on the sword, blaming himself for the team’s “lack of mental preparation.” It was noble of him to do that but unnecessary — everyone will blame him anyway. That’s his burden as coach.

But underneath all of it, everyone filing out of the arena, everyone on talk radio, everyone on the Internet and one of the greatest players in NBA history was muttering about one player.

“We have inexperienced guys who haven’t played in enough meaningful basketball games,” LeBron James said. “When things get a little tough, it’s not like they fall back on previous experiences to help them get through it.”

James didn’t name names. He did not have to name names. When you look at the roster, you realize something: This is NOT an inexperienced team. Far from it. The Cavaliers are tied with Miami for having the oldest roster in the Eastern Conference. There are no rookies on this team. More than half of the team’s minutes have gone to players at least 29 years old. And as far as playing meaningful games, well, the Cavaliers went to the NBA Finals just one year ago, so everyone has played meaningful games …

… Well, not everyone.

Of course he meant Kevin Love. He’s the guy who played only four games in that NBA Finals run last year (Irving also got hurt, but he played in 13 games). He’s the guy who has played in the league for seven years and made three All-Star teams but still inspires all sorts of questions and concerns and doubts.

As always, Kevin Love is a battlefield.

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Kevin Love’s boxscore line always surprises you. That’s probably his defining quality as a player. You watch the Cavaliers play, and maybe you notice Love, maybe you don’t. He hits a three. He grabs a defensive rebound. He passes to an open man out of the double team. He gets lost on defense. It’s fine. Maybe you notice. Maybe you don’t.

Then, though, you look at the boxscore at the end of the night and, inevitably, you will get the classic Love line: 17 or 20 points, 12 or 15 rebounds, four assists, a steal or two. And you will think: When did all that happen? How did I miss all of that?

The Love line happens so often it feels a bit like a magic trick.

But what does it mean? Is Kevin Love overrated because his numbers seem at odds with what the eyes see? Or is Kevin Love underrated because he packs in so much production without people noticing?

Cleveland bet on Love. After LeBron James announced he was coming back to Cleveland, the Cavaliers moved quickly. They know: Even LeBron cannot stay young forever. They traded away the young and brilliantly-talented Andrew Wiggins along with some other pieces to bring Love to town.

Love was, by the numbers, one of the elite players in the NBA. While in Minnesota, he led the NBA in rebounding one year and finished top five in scoring the next. The year before Cleveland got him, Love was fantastic, finishing fourth in the NBA in scoring, third in rebounding and third in player efficiency.

But there was something else: In his five seasons with the Timberwolves, his team never made the playoffs. His team never got close to making the playoffs. His team never even finished with a .500 record. How much of this was Love’s fault? That question, like so many questions about Love, rages on, unresolved.

Love has seemed disappointing in Cleveland. He was awful Monday night against Golden State. He was all but irrelevant on offense, making just one of five shots and contributing almost nothing. This continued a nasty slump — Love has been shooting 35 percent since Christmas. He was asked after the game if the Cavaliers simply weren’t making any room for him on offense.

“I don’t know how to answer that,” he said. “I’m not going to get into that.”

But it was on defense that Love made his mark, becoming an Internet meme as he flailed helplessly against Golden State’s pick and roll. On the one now-infamous play, he broke the wrong way on defense, leaving Green free to set a pick for Curry. If there’s one person you don’t want to leave free on a pick, it is Curry. Love, in a sheer panic, then bolted wildly at Curry to, well, I don’t know what he hoped to do. Love had no chance of actually defending the shot; he was much too far away. Maybe he wanted to rattle Curry.

Instead, Curry (no doubt laughing to himself) dropped off a bounce pass to the rolling Green. There used to be a magician named Slydini, who would make napkins disappear by throwing them over the shoulder of unsuspecting people on stage. Love looked like one of those people.

“Does KLove even try on defense?” longtime NBA player Al Harrington asked on Twitter.

“We got beat up on our home floor tonight,” a despondent-looking Love said after the game. “I think a lot of things went wrong, a lot of things we need to clean up in our preparation. I think they’re the better team right now. We’ve got a lot of things we need to get better at.”

Then he said this:

“That’s going to take a lot of guys looking themselves in the mirror. it all starts with our leader over there (pointing at LeBron James) and dwindles on down.”

That all seemed a weird thing for Love to say. He didn’t exactly single himself out as someone who needs to look in the mirror, but he did single out James. Well, there has long been some tension between him and James, and while you don’t want to make too much of it, the obvious truth is that they have never found the chemistry that everyone in Cleveland had hoped they would find.

And now time is running out. The Cavaliers are in a tricky spot. They’re obviously very good; they have the best record in the East. They probably have the best chance to make the NBA Final, better even than Golden State because they have no San Antonio or Oklahoma City in their way.

But LeBron James’ goal was never just to make Final. And right now, even after betting on Love, the Cavaliers do not seem nearly good enough to win against the elite teams in the NBA.

‘We’ll figure it out,” Love said. Who knows? Maybe they will. After all, you can’t hurry Love. You just have to wait.

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