Ever since LeBron James left Cleveland a second time, Kevin Love has been the stranded man, left behind on an island of woeful incompetence. Love had come to Ohio to form a superteam with James and Kyrie Irving, and it’s hard to say that the marriage was anything but a rousing success: four straight NBA Finals appearances, including a title that—you might have heard this—saw the Cavaliers come from 3-1 down to beat the 73-win Warriors. Since then, though, Love has felt like a player without purpose, a morose reminder of the past as Cleveland tried and failed to transition to a more hopeful future.
Well, it’s time to throw on some sunglasses, because it’s finally dawn on the shores of Lake Erie. On this rambunctiously entertaining team of young studs, Love has carved out a perfect niche for himself as Cleveland’s joyful veteran bench star. On Monday night, the Cavs hosted the Knicks in a scrappy, low-scoring melee between one of the East’s best teams and also the Knicks, and it was Love who provided the spark to keep Cleveland’s torrid stretch going: After the 95-93 win, the Cavs are now 7-1 in their last eight games, with victories over the Nets and Jazz thrown in for good measure.
Love did what he’s been doing all season: He played 24 minutes, shot lights out from three—all of his field goals came from behind the arc, and he shot a robust 6-of-12 from there—ripped down 11 boards in a passable imitation of his Minnesota days, and generally kept the offense flowing.
Though the Knicks game was a bit of an outlier—please hold your surprise that someone played better than average against the Knicks—Love’s performance was in line with his season. He’s averaging just over 21 minutes per game for the year, and maintaining a tidy 14-7-2 line with 40 percent success from three. It’s not the most impressive campaign he’s ever had, but it’s exactly what Cleveland needs from him at this stage of his career.
Love also just seems happier. Ostentatiously sulking through losses has been Love’s calling card over the last few seasons, so it’s nice to see one of the NBA’s more uniquely talented weirdos finally putting in a real effort and having some fun again. Even though Evan Mobley has rooted Love to the bench, he appears to be settling in nicely to the new role. His insertion into last night’s game in the third quarter, with Cleveland trailing by five, completely changed the dynamic, as Love immediately sank four three-pointers in about three minutes, sparking a 9-0 run that put Cleveland up 11, just enough of a cushion to hold off a strong Knicks fourth quarter. After hitting his final three of the night, Love went and got himself a big, extended hug from Darius Garland.
Getting a former star to thrive while playing from the bench isn’t an easy task, and Cavs coach J. B. Bickerstaff deserves a lot of credit for utilizing Love so well without sacrificing much of his young guys’ playing time. Ultimately, though, this is just a fun development for a guy who hadn’t been having too much fun out there. As Love said after the game on Monday, “winning changes a lot,” and in this case, winning has made his new role stick. In return, Love is serving up some additional fuel for the Cavaliers machine to keep mowing down almost everyone in its path. Not bad for someone who called playing for a team stuck in rebuilding mode a “mindfuck” once upon a time.