Kevin Love has never been known for doing the little things. He earned his star reputation in Minnesota because he put up gaudy statistics, not because he made "winning" plays on both ends. His All-Star campaign at the time, which successfully landed him a starting spot in the event, was even called "Numbers."
Since arriving in Cleveland, however, those stats have gone down and his game has been picked apart. His defensive reputation, in particular, has completely fallen. Yet, at least so far in the 2016 NBA Playoffs, Love has started to make some of the plays that often go unnoticed, but really help a team on that end.
Now, no one should confuse Love for a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. On shots at the rim, he allows by far the highest field goal percentage among players who contest at least five per game. The Cavaliers are still better on that end when he sits than when he plays. It might even be fair to say that he remains the weak link on the starting unit on defense.
The subtle but real improvements he's made, however, have made him less of a drain than he used to be, and that matters.
It was obvious in Game 2 that this version of Love cares. The Raptors attacked him relentlessly on pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs, like most teams do. Since he was guarding pick-and-pop threats, Love had to hedge and recover over and over again and he did a solid job at it. He also showed good awareness as to when the perimeter defender was going to go under the screen and made sure he wasn't in the way. That's basic stuff, but it does require consistent effort and focus that have not always been there in the past.
He was also game for switching -- but only when necessary -- and did a good job of containing perimeter players when he was on them. He conceded the mid-range jumper, but also moved his feet when he was attacked and contested those shots well. When his teammates got caught on a screen, he got a hand up on the perimeter player pulling up. With the exception of one instance in which Cory Joseph blew by him for a layup, he held his own against quicker perimeter players.
It seems like familiarity with his teammates, public embarrassment and a real shot at a title have done wonders for his effort level and understanding. Again, he's not Marc Gasol out there, shutting down passing lanes and providing a safety net for everyone else. However, he's making the right reads and anticipating the offense's moves at times, and not giving up on plays in which he would have in the past.
Love has been solid enough on defense to help contain a quality power forward like Paul Millsap, as well as role players that can hurt teams from outside. With him on the court, the Cavaliers allow fewer three-pointers. His improved discipline when it comes to staying with his man plays a part on that. Against the Raptors, it hasn't mattered who Dwane Casey has started. Cleveland has had the edge at the power forward position, arguably on both ends.
There are obviously still questions about Love's defense in a potential NBA Finals matchup with either the Warriors or the Thunder. Containing DeMar DeRozan on a switch is not the same as guarding Stephen Curry or Russell Westbrook. He's still far from a great option on that end as a center in small units, as well. Love is never going to be a great defensive player.
If he doesn't regress after making these improvements, however, it wouldn't be crazy to see him hold his own enough to be able to stay on the floor. The beauty of the Cavaliers' roster is that he can be hidden to an extent, as Tristan Thompson has the mobility he lacks and LeBron James provides help defense like a center when he must. Having Love guard Serge Ibaka or Harrison Barnes, with James taking on Draymond Green, seems like a viable plan on defense.
That matters because Love is rediscovering the offensive player that had ridiculous numbers in Minnesota. He's still a threat from inside and out thanks to his ability to hit three-pointers and take smaller defenders on the post. He remains a terrific passer and one of the best rebounders in the league, despite having lost weight. He's averaging 18 points, 11 rebounds and two assists in the postseason, which are star numbers.
Had his defense remained as poor as it had been at times in the past, none of that would have mattered. He simply would have been too much of a liability. If this continues, though, it seems like he's just another average defender instead of a target. If he continues to do the little things on that end as well as he has lately, he will have the chance to buy himself enough time on the court to make opponents pay on offense.
That will make the Cavaliers an even scarier team.