BOSTON — Maybe it was the look on Kevin Love’s face. Perhaps it was the way he strolled into the TD Garden for shootaround at about 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Or maybe it was him practicing bouncy, powerful dunks. Whatever it was that tipped him off, LeBron James could sense Love’s breakout game coming early.
“I saw that in Kev this morning,” James said after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 117-104 win. “I knew what type of game he was going to have. He came through for us.”
Two years ago, inside the raucous building, Love sprinted off the court and straight to the locker room with a dislocated shoulder. His first postseason appearance cut short in Round One by Kelly Olynyk. His season over.
On Wednesday night, he scored a career playoff-best 32 points on 9-of-16 from the field, including 6-of-9 from 3-point range and 8-of-9 from the free throw line to go with a team-high 12 rebounds.
“I didn’t even think about it,” Love said when asked whether he reflected back on the shoulder injury. “It wasn’t something that really crossed my mind. Having been hurt a couple years ago in the playoffs in the first round, I didn’t get a chance to play in the Eastern Conference finals when we were on the road. So tonight we really got off to a great start. It was a great atmosphere, and more than anything else, [I] focused on that and our game plan.”
That plan seemed to feature Love more. Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue admitted he was at fault for Love’s pedestrian numbers in the first two rounds and vowed to get him more involved offensively, especially given the favorable matchup against Boston. Love took five shots in the first quarter before getting pulled at the 7-minute mark, a slight rotation adjustment.
“He was just being aggressive,” Lue said. “Just knowing him over the last three years, when it starts inside-out, that’s when his 3-ball gets to working. LeBron has been playing so well that we really haven’t had a chance to really feature Kevin. But we’ve been talking, and he’s been ready, and tonight was a huge performance from him. We needed that. And then he was also really good defensively. On the boards, making shots, posting up. We needed that big performance from Kevin.”
After scoring two points in the first quarter, Love started the second quarter, getting the nod in place of birthday boy Channing Frye. With James and Kyrie Irving getting a breather after playing the entire first period, Love became the focal point of the new-look unit, harkening back to his days with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“We want the mentality of Kevin from Minnesota, but his usage rate don’t have to be as high as Minnesota,” James said. “Obviously we all know that he was a featured guy pretty much every possession going down the floor, and here that’s changed a little bit because we have other guys. But his mentality needs to stay the same as Minnesota, and I think as he continues to get even more comfortable and comfortable.
“Tonight was one of those instances where every time he got the ball, it was a small guarding him or somebody was in the post, he was aggressive. He grabbed every rebound for the most part with him and Tristan (Thompson) in the paint, and he was very aggressive with his shot. So definitely that mentality from Minnesota is what we all love.”
The best stretch came in the third quarter, as Love scored 18 of his 32 points while hitting five 3-pointers once the defense started to collapse on drives.
“As I mentioned to Ty (Lue) last week and throughout these playoffs, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m getting five shots or 25 shots, I just want to win,” Love said. “I know I can impact the game whether it shows up in the stat sheet or not. I think that has allowed me to be comfortable out there on the floor, knowing that my mindset is really there, still being aggressive and making plays, as I mentioned, whether those are showing up or not. But just being there for them is huge, and I embrace that.”
It had been a quiet postseason for Love up until Wednesday. In the first eight games, he was averaging 13.8 points on 43 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range. After getting more than 14 shots per game during the regular season, Love was averaging around 10 against Indiana and Toronto. Not once did he hit his season average for shot attempts.
Given the way the offense was rolling, with James at the center of it all, there was no reason to shake things up. And Love was still having an impact, as the Cavs were scoring 118.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
But on Wednesday night, the champs didn’t just need his floor spacing. They needed Love’s scoring punch. And he delivered, etching his name into the record books.
In the Game 1 rout, Love became the second James teammate to get 30 points and 10 rebounds in a playoff game, joining future Hall-of-Famer Dwyane Wade. Love also became the first Cavalier — aside from James, of course — to tally 30 and 10 in a playoff game since Brad Daugherty in 1992.
Both Love and James reached the 30-point mark, spearheading what again looked like an unstoppable offense. Those numbers don’t typically happen in Boston. Not this time of year. The last two teammates to accomplish that feat in the postseason were Jerry West and Elgin Baylor of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1966.
When a reporter showed James that stat after, he shouted across the visitor’s locker room to Love, who was still in his uniform with his feet sitting in a bucket of ice.
“Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were the last to do it, Kev,” James said. Love then replied with a smile and a laugh, “Which one am I?”
On Wednesday night, he was the guy from Minnesota, pounding smaller defenders in the paint, finishing defensive possessions with strong rebounds and pulling bigger defenders beyond the 3-point line, all leading to the performance that had been missing in the early rounds, one that James felt coming nearly 10 hours before tipoff.