There were signs right from the get-go that the Cleveland Cavaliers were intent on getting Kevin Love more involved in the offense. The results weren't always the best to start, but the renewed focus was bound to pay off at some point.
It's paying off now. Love is finding a groove and helping prop up a dominant Cavaliers offense even with Kyrie Irving still sidelined.
In five games since a 2-of-10 dud of a performance against the New York Knicks, Love has averaged 25 points and 11.5 rebounds while shooting 53 percent overall and 47 percent from three-point range. Those are numbers more akin to his Minnesota Timberwolves days.
Love's latest performance was his best one yet. Facing a much-improved Orlando Magic defense, the big man went for 34 points in a 117-103 victory for the short-handed Cavaliers. He shot 11-of-18 from the floor and 6-of-9 from three. He also added four assists to his big point total, which was his highest scoring output since donning a Cleveland uniform.
The primary complaint about Love's role last season was that he too often became a stationary spot-up shooter, which wasted his talents in the post. Against the Magic, Love's full repertoire was on display. In the first half, he used a right-handed jump hook to beat the smaller Tobias Harris twice inside. Andrew Nicholson was a victim as well:
Later in the second quarter, Love countered the hook shot with a fadeaway jumper over his other shoulder:
But as evidenced by those six threes, Love also showed off his value as a long-range bomber. He knocked down those shots in a variety of ways, whether it was off a pick-and-roll with Matthew Dellavedova:
Or, spotting up in transition on a LeBron James fast break:
Or, a simple spot-up in the corner in a half-court set:
This was the full Kevin Love Experience, and it was complete with one of his infamous outlet passes:
Love is averaging 19.4 points and 11.7 rebounds this season, which is up from 16.4 points and 9.7 boards last season despite playing less than a minute more per game. He's taking 2.4 more shots per game, and his usage rate (the percentage of possessions that end in a shot, foul drawn or turnover) is up from 21.6 to 25.6.
Love has been more efficient with the increased touches, and it's also led to a more powerful Cavaliers offense as a whole. Cleveland's offense is currently one-tenth of a point higher per 100 possessions (107.8) than last season, and it's been especially devastating with Love out there. The Cavaliers have scored 112.7 points per 100 possessions with Love in the game, the best mark on the team, per NBA.com. That's an offensive rating that would rank higher than the Golden State Warriors' top-ranked group.
Furthermore, Love is part of the league's best two-man unit, although his partner-in-crime isn't who you'd think:
lol the best two-man combo in the NBA is Matthew Dellavedova & Kevin Love at a casual +30.9 for the year pic.twitter.com/GRKQrMp9KF— Conrad Kaczmarek (@ConradKaz) November 24, 2015
The Love-LeBron duo is on that list as well, as well as several other Dellavedova combos. The work the Cavaliers have done thus far with Irving sidelined has been impressive, and the return of a healthy Irving will only bolster what's already the most dominant team in the East.
Love's overall production will likely decrease a bit with the high-usage Irving returning to the lineup, but the key will be continuing to use Love like he's being used now. Even if his total usage goes down, it's imperative to keep Love engaged by getting him post touches (he's up from 4.0 per game last year to 6.2 this season, per SportVU) and moving him around the floor to take advantage of his special talents.
If that happens and Irving is assimilated back into the lineup seamlessly, it's all over in the East. It may be all over regardless given the way the Warriors are playing, but a fully functional Cavaliers attack has as good a chance as anyone of taking down the Golden State juggernaut in the NBA Finals.
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