It didn't take long for the Phoenix Suns to find their hot hand in a 107-100 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday. Markieff Morris got things going early by hitting an uncontested 18-foot jumper, then followed it up minutes later by barreling to the basket from the elbow for an easy layup.
Morris had a lot moves going Tuesday en route to scoring a career-high 35 points and put them all on display in an impressive performance. He's a rising player in this league. Yet he also had the benefit of being guarded by Kevin Love for the majority of the game.
Love's poor defensive work is nothing new, but it's back under the spotlight Wednesday after the All-Star was torched by Morris for 27 minutes. Love often looked overwhelmed trying to stop the athletic Suns forward, whether he was matched up in an isolation or trying to close out on the perimeter.
You could tell it was going to be that kind of night early on, when a backpedaling Love stumbled to the floor while trying to defend Morris' penetration on an isolation from the elbow:
About a minute later, the Suns went back to a similar play, with Morris setting up against Love near the right elbow. Cha-ching:
This set the tone for a night of dominant production by Morris, who finished the game shooting 15-of-21 from the field. Love should've had an increased sense of urgency in defending after Morris made those buckets early on, but you still regularly saw the Suns big man finding open space and hitting shots.
By the fourth quarter, head coach David Blatt had seen enough and put Love on the bench in favor of James Jones. This didn't stop Morris, who added another 12 points in the fourth quarter with Love sidelined. But again: Kevin Love got benched for an entire fourth quarter in favor of James Jones. This comes days after Blatt tried to get cute with semantics and suggested Love wasn't a max-contract player.
So that's where the Cavaliers and Love appear to be at this point. Being benched in the fourth quarter for defense used to be the territory of Carlos Boozer -- "OK, thanks Carlos, but it's time for our team to play defense now" -- yet this isn't the first time we've seen it with Love. Just how bad have things gotten?
No love for rim protection
The Cavaliers were patient with Love and his questionable defense early in the year, but a few months into the season, many of Love's poor habits remain, particularly when defending around the basket.
The guy may have a knack for positioning when it comes to grabbing rebounds, but he still doesn't put the effort into defending the basket well. Among the 10 Cavaliers who have gotten significant playing time this season, including the departed Dion Waiters and injured Anderson Varejao, Love ranks seventh in contesting shots around the basket, allowing 1.09 points per attempt, per Synergy Sports Technology. For some perspective: LeBron James leads the team at 0.806 points per attempt. Overall, Love is in the league's 34th percentile, good for 245th among all players.
Some of the names ahead of Love on that list defy logic: 38-year-old point guard Andre Miller is above him. Of course, different players are tasked with different roles, but it underscores how futile Love has been at one of his core responsibilities.
That's a huge concern for a team that's already replaced its starting center this season and needs 35-plus minutes a night from Love. This isn't the kind of issue that the team can comb over with some slight changes in scheme and personnel usage.
Morris scored a lot of his points Wednesday on other players, primarily Jones and Shawn Marion, but that's because Blatt pulled the plug on Love so early. The 26-year-old doesn't have strong instincts or lateral movement, and athletic big men like Morris have had little trouble exposing that.
A bad Cavaliers defense overall
Love's reputation as a defender, which wasn't stellar in the first place, has taken a sizable hit since arriving in Cleveland. That's largely because of the numbers described above, as well as Cleveland's team-wide struggles on that end of the floor. Love wasn't expected to anchor the defense, but it wasn't anticipated that he'd contribute to one of the weakest units in the league.
Trouble in Cleveland
Trouble in Cleveland
The Cavaliers are currently 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 106.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Since LeBron's injury in late December, which caused him to miss eight of the team's past nine games, that number is up to 109.2 points.
The numbers are ugly elsewhere, too. The Cavaliers are 29th in opponent field-goal percentage, both overall (47.1 percent) and inside 5 feet (62.7 percent). In both cases, Love's former team, the Timberwolves, is at the bottom of the list. Cleveland also allows the league's highest percentage from 15-to-19 feet (45.7 percent).
It would be unfair to attribute all of these struggles to Love, but it's clear he plays a pivotal role in the team's defensive efforts, especially around the basket. The NBA may be increasingly built on a platform of fluid ball movement and three-pointers, but every good defense still protects the rim like a mother protects her child. The Cavaliers haven't exactly lived up to that end of the bargain.
Reasons for optimism
This all paints a pretty dire picture for Cleveland, but there are some reasons to be hopeful going forward. The team still has James, one of the game's elite players, and the recent addition of center Timofey Mozgov should take some pressure off Love defensively. There have been stretches where the Cavaliers looked at least adequate on that end, which would at least be enough to win a bunch of games given the team's skilled offensive talent.
There are also some silver linings to Love's defensive numbers, which suggest a player who's actually pretty good at some things. For example, he's above-average defending post-ups, placing in the league's 67th percentile, per Synergy Sports Technology. He also comes in just about average against jump shots.
Love is also better against isolation plays than he looked against Morris, who went a perfect 3-of-3 in those opportunities Tuesday. Despite that performance, Love is still in the 71st percentile against isolation, allowing 0.727 points per possession, per Synergy. Opponents have shot 9-of-28 with Love defending in those situations. He's often been effective one-on-one.
The numbers aren't the be-all, end-all, because they don't always fully account for quality of opposition and the structure of the help defense, but they show there are glimpses of a decent defender in there. Whether that means Blatt can eventually coax a solid defense out of the Cavaliers remains to be seen.
Love's struggles are a legitimate concern, though, and not simply because he's an All-Star who's failing to live up to expectations. The Cavaliers are a mess defensively right now and Love is arguably the biggest reason that's the case.