TORONTO — Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue won out in a battle of wills between him with Kevin Love over which position the big man would play in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Toronto Raptors and then Love, as Cleveland’s starting center, helped his team to a 2-0 series lead with 31 points in the Cavs’ 128-110 win Thursday.
“Between us, there’s obviously a mutual respect,” Love, who had lobbied to return to power forward, said of his relationship with Lue after falling just one point short of his career playoff high in scoring. “He’s helped me so much as I sit here with Cleveland in the past four years. But sometimes you’re going to butt heads and I mean, my entire life and my entire pro career — this is going to be my 10th year — I’ve spent the majority of my time at the 4 position and the power forward position.
“But he sees something out there in me at the 5 spot and I guess, especially on the offensive end when I have my game going, he wants me to take full advantage of that.”
Love got it going early — eclipsing his Game 1 scoring total of seven points in the first quarter alone when he posted 10 points in the opening frame in Game 2 — and only continued from there. He scored nine of his points in the third quarter on 4-for-5 shooting when Cleveland blew the game open with a 37-24 run.
“I’ve always tried to do the best I can in, I guess, the area of willingness to sacrifice for this team and sometimes we’re going to have a little bit of pushback and I think that’s in some cases healthy,” Love said. “But I respect Ty. I love Ty and I think it’s good for us. I’ll do whatever it takes for this team.”
While Lue might have stuck to his guns when it came to Love, continuing to put him at the 5 for spacing reasons on offense, Love ended up being freed up from having to contend with the Raptors’ 7-foot, 265-pound center Jonas Valanciunas anyway because of Toronto coach Dwane Casey’s rotation in the second half.
“In the second half, they went small and we were able to post Kevin against CJ and DeRozan a few times,” said Lue, who added that he showed Love game film Wednesday detailing what the Cavs could do on offense to try to force that switch from Toronto so Love would have an easier time of it in the post.
Love, who came into Game 2 averaging just 10.9 points on 31.9 percent shooting in the 2018 postseason, shot 11-for-21 overall on Thursday. He was 5-for-5 when guarded by Miles and DeRozan, with an average shot distance of 3.2 feet away from the hoop, according to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information.
“He demanded the ball and we got it to him,” said LeBron James who had 43 points and 14 assists alongside Love’s breakout game. “He worked well off the ball, I was able to hit him for a couple slashes to the rim, he was able to dunk one. He was able to get some going on the run. He had his 3 going a little bit early, but more importantly he was working the paint. He wasn’t settling. It allowed us to continue to feature him and continue to go to him. It was great to see that performance out of him. He’s our All-Star power forward and it was a huge game for him.”
Love’s had his struggles against the Raptors before in the playoffs and bounced back. In the 2016 Eastern Conference finals, Lue benched Love in the fourth quarter of Cleveland’s consecutive losses in Games 3 and 4 in Toronto and Love responded with 25 points on 8-for-10 shooting in a win in Game 5.
“I do remember that pretty vividly,” Love told ESPN. “Channing (Frye) called me and told me about his (2010) Western Conference finals where he was like 1-for-19 and that whole deal (as encouragement). I just think there’s ways to get over things and all it takes is seeing the ball go through the hoop sometimes and whatever ailments you’re dealing with, you just have to fight through it because, the team, we need everybody.”
James recalled the fortitude of his former Miami Heat teammate, Chris Bosh, who like Love, had some postseason ups and downs en route to becoming a champion.
“We know what they’re capable of, Kev or CB, two (perennial) All-Stars, two of the best power forwards I’ve played with obviously,” James said. “It’s just the demeanor about ’em. They’re both, they show their emotions a little bit different than other guys. It’s kind of hard to read ’em. But at the same time when they do give you that demand, just get it to him. Kev had that look in his face today like he wanted the ball more and more and more.”
Love, ever the pragmatist, did not assign any greater meaning to his Game 2 perfromance.
“I made some shots,” he said. “I mean, as simple as that. I know it’s funny to say, but I’ve had a lot of great looks and really uncharacteristic misses for me. It’s not like I forgot how to play the game of basketball. I go out there every night and fight and try to help this team win.”