BOSTON — About 12 hours before LeBron James and Kevin Love became the first pair of teammates since Elgin Baylor and Jerry West in 1966 to score 30-plus points apiece in a road playoff game against the Boston Celtics, James had a feeling Love was in for a special night.
“For me, I saw that in Kev this morning,” James said after Love finished with 32 points — a playoff career high — and 12 rebounds. “I knew what type of game he was going to have. I mean, he came through for us.”
James wouldn’t reveal what tipped him off to what Love had up his sleeve, but it became apparent to everybody shortly after the opening tip. Love started the game with a steal on the first possession, and even though he went only 1-for-5 from the field in the first quarter, he had a block in the opening period as Cleveland jumped out to a 30-19 lead.
To begin the second quarter, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue switched his normal rotation. Rather than have James or Kyrie Irving play with four reserves, Lue put Love in as the alpha dog and had the team ride him to keep the momentum going.
“Kyrie and LeBron went out, and I told him I was going to feature him, and he did a good job of carrying the load,” Lue said. “We did a good job of getting the basketball to him, and he came up big for us.”
Love scored 11 points (3-for-3 shooting) in the second quarter. Then, in the third, when he shared the court the entire quarter with James and Irving, Love really went off, scoring 18 points (5-for-8 shooting). All of his baskets came on 3-pointers from all over the court.
The Celtics’ defense was so terrified of James driving to the hoop — as he did in the first quarter when he scored 15 points and was 7-for-7 on shots taken in the paint — that in adjusting to thwart James, they lost track of Love.
“Once we started helping and over-helping a little bit, Love goes nuts in the third quarter,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “This is the predicament they put you in.”
Much has been made of Love’s predicament in Cleveland as the third wheel in the Cavs’ supposed Big Three. Love is the one who has had to sacrifice the most of his former existence as a solo superstar to make the collaboration work.
The contrast between Love’s game versus James’ and Irving’s was as stark as ever in the second round against Toronto, when Love averaged just 12 points in the four-game sweep.
But during the Cavs’ nine-day break in between rounds, Lue vowed to utilize Love more and blamed himself for the postseason downturn in Love’s production.
Love, to his credit, accepted his role, knowing he was a key contributor to the Cavs’ 25-5 mark over their past 30 playoff games no matter what the stats said.
“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 having all these guys’ backs and being there for them is huge, and I embrace that.”
James said Love was back to his dominant self — when he was making All-NBA teams with the Minnesota Timberwolves — based not on his production but rather on his persona.
“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. He also got to the free throw line 10 times — well, nine. So, definitely, that mentality from Minnesota is what we all love.”
The love for Love is real among his teammates. He is as important to who they are and what they are capable of doing as he has ever been.
“LeBron has been playing so well that we really haven’t had a chance to really feature Kevin,” Lue said. “But we’ve been talking, and he’s been ready, and tonight was a huge performance from him. We needed that … we needed that big performance from Kevin.”