Amidst a historic offensive performance, Love's defense shines
After game three of the NBA Finals, we profiled Kyrie Irving, looking alternately at his strengths and his greatest failing as a player.
Irving’s strengths are to be found in his amazingly good ball handling skills, and in his shot-making ability, which is somehow even better than the handle. His ability to make ridiculously difficult shots even when well defended is almost unrivalled league-wide, perhaps rivalled only by other players in the series; conversely, his knowledge of this ability, and his desire to try and do it even when he shouldn’t, is what resulted in the Cavaliers’ penultimate offensive possession that cost them game three.
In game four, however, it was all the good with none of the bad. Irving scored 40 points on 27 shots, including seven made three-pointers, normally coming from a step-back with a hand in his face. Irving’s scoring explosion to begin the game set the tone for a dominant, historic Cavaliers offensive performance, and were the perfect catalyst to a completely ludicrous game that is already in the annuls of history amongst the other great NBA Finals games.
But even with that, Kyrie couldn’t do it alone. No one ever does it alone. And by “it” in this instance, we mean score 137 points in 48 minutes and blow out the greatest team of all time when in a 3-0 hole in the NBA Finals.
Enter Kevin Love, the third wheel. And one heck of a third wheel he is.
In game four, Love scored 17 points in the Cavaliers’ astounding 86 first half performance, finishing on 23 total for the game, along five rebounds, two steals and a block. He did so in only 29 minutes and on 14 shots, with six made three-points and, disregarding Derrick Williams’s fluke rating in his 136 garbage time seconds, the highest rating on the team (+36). Higher than Kyrie’s. Even higher than LeBron James’s, and LeBron had a triple double.
For the series, Love is averaging 18.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1 block per game. He averages this despite a 1-9 shooting performance in 37 minutes of game three. Love is the rare stretch forward who can take and make a high volume of threes, while also diversifying that with some interior offense, and rebounding his position very well.
Love came into the NBA without the ability to stretch the floor, at least from the NBA three-point line. He made only two three-pointers in his rookie season, and that aspect of the game was simply not a part of his remit when he started. Thereafter, however, it has grown. Love’s Three Point Attempts rate (i.e. what percentage of his overall shot attempts were from three-point range) increased in each of the first eight seasons of his career, from 2.8% as a rookie to 44.9% last year. And the only reason it did not increase for a ninth consecutive year this season is because it tied with last year, recording a rate of exactly 44.9% once again.
As his three-point game has expanded, his efficiency has improved. A career 44.2% shooter overall, poor for a big man on the face of it, Love nevertheless has a healthier career true shooting percentage of .573% born out both the volume of his threes and his career Free Throw rate of 41.3% (free throws on which he then shoots 82%). In this series, Love has camped out in the corners, and particularly the left one, waiting for a drive-and-kick from James or Irving, ready to punish the defender who goes to – needs to – help on the drive. After last night’s performance, which included 4-4 shooting from that selfsame left corner, Love is shooting 44.0% from three in the playoffs versus 37.3% in the regular season, and 12-28 in the finals alone for 42.5%. That is efficient offense, and on good volume.
However, the most striking part of Love’s impact on the series thus far, and game four in particular, was not his scoring. Nor was it his rebounding. Instead, it was his defence.
It is possible to get six steals without doing anything right. In theory, a team could just throw six passes directly into your hands. Indeed, in the analytical era, steals have been widely derided as an inaccurate measure of defence, in large part since a steal could also be the result of a decision by a defender to gamble. Gambles can be lost, and the box score does not record when they are. Gambles are frowned upon now.
However, Love earned his six steals. He did not gamble. He did not have the ball thrown at him six times. He got in the way, as any defender should, and won the ball for his team.
Not the fleetest of foot - which is an overly polite way of saying he is fairly slow on the perimeter and especially so for one in the ‘stretch big’ role - Love has learned to compensate for his lack of foot speed with ever-improving footwork and reads on perimeter plays. He has not the speed to recover should he get beaten, so he has instead made it far less likely he will be beaten, moving his feet as quickly as he can, staying in a good stance, and reacting laterally on first move with biting on shot fakes. Love also keeps his arms up and active in the passing lanes, and at one point threw a trap on an (admittedly out of step) Steph Curry early on in the game that proved effective. It would be fair to assume Steph did not expect that.
Similarly, Love has learned to compensate for his lack of leap and wingspan around the basket that prevent him from being much of a rim protector in other ways. He used his strength and frame in the few possessions of post defence that were called for, as well as on the glass, and his effort level is consistently high even when the results are less impressive than they were yesterday.
It would be too great of a stretch to say that Love was a good defender, but he has become a thoroughly capable one. Love was brought in to Cleveland to be the third wheel offensively. But his improvements defensively are proving just as impactful.