CLEVELAND, Ohio — Following a night when the Cavs and Rockets combined for 33 3-pointers in the game and 79 points in the fourth quarter.
After a game in which James Harden posted 41 points in a loss; the Cavs making 13-of-15 shots in the final period of their 128-120 win.
Let’s talk about defense. And not just anyone’s defense. Kevin Love’s defense.
“Yeah Kev turned (the game) around defensively,” LeBron James said, referring to Love’s steals on consecutive possessions that helped turn a four-point Cavs lead into a 10-point advantage with 6:06 left. “He got his hands on a couple loose balls, or pocket passes, and allowed us to get out in transition and hit some big shots, so Kev definitely sparked that run.”
The irony here is in a game with such offensive firepower — Kyrie Irving scored 32 for the Cavs and Love added 24 — we’d be talking about the standout defense of the Cleveland starter whom the average bystander assumes is the worst among teammates at that end of the floor.
Kyrie, Cavs Big 3 go crazy in win
The 6-10 Love has always been an excellent rebounder, but his on-ball and help defense have been suspect. He’s had his issues switching on the pick-and-roll.
All of that seemed to go away in Game 7 of the Finals, with time winding down, when the Warriors’ Stephen Curry had the ball against Love and couldn’t shake him.
And Love’s been solid defensively ever since.
“I’m not going to be a guy who averages two blocks a game,” Love said. “I don’t know what the stats say, but I’d bet you that statistically I’m not a bad defender, so to speak. I think I read defenses relatively well. Obviously there’s guys in this league that dominate the ball, like a Kyrie Irving or a ‘Bron that just beats you to the lane. It’s just very hard to play against them. There’s a lot of guys even on that Warriors team that you saw in the Finals that are so good at that. It’s just something I continue to try to get better at.”
Love’s defensive statistics are in fact pretty good. Heading into last night’s game, he had a defensive rating of 91.3 — second best on the Cavs behind Iman Shumpert. His opponents were shooting just 38.3 percent against him.
Yes, the Warriors seemed to expose Love defensively for much of the Finals, especially early in the series, when he was largely guarding Draymond Green and Green went for 44 points and 18 rebounds in the first two games.
But in four games this season, he posted three steals in the opener against the Knicks, another against the Raptors, and then the two against the Rockets. He had four blocks in the last three games.
In Tuesday’s game, Love picked the ball from Rockets center Clint Capela with 6:34 left in the fourth quarter. The steal turned into the second of consecutive 3s by Mike Dunleavy.
Then, Love stole the ball from James Harden. Love was eventually fouled on the perimeter as he hoisted a 3-point try, and drained all three foul shots.
It was suggested to Love’s coach, Tyronn Lue, that Love has perhaps evolved into a better defender, and Lue shot back: “What do you mean, ‘evolution?’ I mean, you know, some people are not defenders. As long as you give effort, you can make up for a lot of mistakes and Kevin is giving effort and he’s been good for us defensively.”
Lue said Love’s defensive improvement can be traced to the apparent comfort level he’s found on offense.
The season is young, yes, but Love is averaging 21.0 points per game. He’s averaged 16.2 points in his first two seasons in Cleveland.
Love is also averaging 15.8 shots per game, compared to 12.7 the last two years.
“I think now that he’s touching the ball and he feels a part of the offense, when you’re making shots or getting shots and then you play defense, that’s just the name of the game,” Lue said. “But overall, his defense has been great. I mean, two big steals that really helped us open up the game getting out in transition.”