CLEVELAND — With a baseball cap pulled down over his head — a head that had been examined over and over again by doctors in the days leading up to Friday’s Game 4 of the NBA Finals — Kevin Love slumped against a wall in the back corridor at Quicken Loans Arena, burdened not so much by exhaustion, but by exasperation.
The Cleveland Cavaliers had just put the finishing touches on a gut-wrenching 108-97 loss to the Golden State Warriors to fall down 3-1 in the series, and Love lingered behind with a few friends, unsure if he would be exiting The Q for the last time this season — or perhaps, even, the last time as a Cavalier. A concussion suffered in Game 2 hijacked his hope of a hero’s ride through the championship round. After Warriors swingman Harrison Barnes whacked him in the back of his skull with a forearm while going over his back for an offensive rebound — a play that resulted in no foul call, mind you — Love spent the ensuing days doing whatever was asked of him to try to return to the court.
“It was tough,” Love told ESPN.com. “Being able to pass protocol, one of the things, you have to be symptom-free for a certain amount of time, I was told. Having to deal with the headaches, having to deal with not being able to sleep, initially being in the dark rooms. Just going over all the stuff and then not being able to play was so, so frustrating. It was a weird experience dealing with a concussion.”
While Love was literally in the dark, spending time in places devoid of light as part of the league protocol, what might have been even weirder for him was seeing how quickly people wanted to call it curtains on his Cavaliers career.
Never mind that Love put up a double-double in 10 of the Cavs’ first 15 playoff games leading up to Game 2, or the fact that he actually managed to hit a 3 after absorbing the Barnes hit and he clearly wanted to be out there if his body allowed it. No, the knee-jerk reaction to Cleveland falling down 2-0 with him and subsequently beating Golden State by 30 without him was that Love was the root of the Cavs’ problems and thus expendable.
Why does this conversation always seem to occur with him specifically? Why does public sentiment turn on him as soon as the Cavs stumble?
“Why do you think?” Love said, answering a question with a question. “You’re part of it. I’m not saying you’re who does it, but you are there with the people that do …
“I don’t know how to answer it, because I have a couple bad games last series [against Toronto], tough games, and have to come back and do whatever I needed to do to help the team. Still, it’s just never enough.”
After being benched in the fourth quarter of both Games 3 and 4 against Toronto, Love bounced back by averaging 22.5 points, seven rebounds and three assists in Games 5 and 6. Love’s 11 points and five rebounds in Game 4 of the Finals aren’t the type of numbers that usually justify a max contract extension like the five-year, $113 million deal he signed in the offseason, of course. Then again, how many max players would fight their way back from a concussion only to lose their starting gig as a reward?
“Ty came to me and was like, ‘What do you think?'” Love recalled of his conversation with head coach Tyronn Lue regarding the role he’d play when he was medically cleared. “I said, ‘Ty, I’ll do whatever you need me to do. I’ll come off the bench. No problem. I thought R.J. [Richard Jefferson] was great for us [starting in place of Love in Game 3].'”
There’s always got to be a scapegoat when things go awry. When the Warriors became just the 10th team in postseason history to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the Western Conference finals, some framed the Oklahoma City Thunder as choke artists rather than marvel at the Dubs’ feat.
For this Cavs team with the second-highest payroll in league history, that blame has been aimed at Love. Yet a look inside the Cavs’ locker room prior to Game 3, when it was already finalized that Love would indeed have to sit out the game, showed compassion, not consternation.
“I’ve been asked to be the second, third guy — third guy most nights. It hasn’t been the easiest transition in the world but as far as being a part of a family, this unit here, I’ve never been on a team that’s closer than this. So that’s why I don’t understand when I hear people say I’m a square peg in a round hole or something like that.”
“It’s a real moment,” Love said. “Bron [LeBron James] came to me when he found out the news I wasn’t playing, he was like: ‘I got you. We got you.’ And R.J. said the same thing. He knew he was stepping in for me. Kyrie [Irving] said the same thing. Champ [James Jones], naturally. Channing [Frye]. All those guys came to me. I was the first one to meet them in the locker room after the game, and Bron was the last guy I had seen. I gave a couple guys big hugs that had really stepped up, but Bron just looked at me and said, ‘I told you so.'”
It’s with the same knowing tone that Love assesses the calls for him to be traded this offseason if the Cavs can’t pull off the improbable and win Games 5-7.
“It’s an easy storyline, and people are going to run with it, and that’s always going to be how it is,” Love said of the calls to blow the Cavs up, despite two straight trips to the Finals. “But if you ask anybody on that team, including myself, this is the closest unit, closest group I’ve ever been around.
“I mean, I’ve been asked to do different things, being here. I’ve been asked to be the second, third guy — third guy most nights. It hasn’t been the easiest transition in the world, but as far as being a part of a family, this unit here, I’ve never been on a team that’s closer than this. So that’s why I don’t understand when I hear people say I’m a square peg in a round hole or something like that.”
That’s not to say Love has absolved himself from all fault in the series. He admitted that Anderson Varejao beat him to a couple of offensive rebounds in the third quarter when the Warriors turned an eight-point Cavs lead into a two-point advantage of their own heading into the fourth. And he acknowledges that the matchup just isn’t the most favorable for him personally.
“You got to realize that in this series, a guy like myself and Channing, we’re going to be neutralized,” Love said. “They guard the 3-point line really well. They switch. They thrive off double teams, and you have to be able to make the pass. It’s tough. You have to run and play different ways with them, and they’re a tough team to beat. They’re the champs. They were the champs last year. So, got us down 3-1, they’re a tough team.”
As of the early hours of Saturday morning, a source familiar with the Cavs coaching staff’s thinking said the starting lineup for Game 5 and its potential inclusion of Love once again was to be determined and could largely be affected by the status of Draymond Green, who could be suspended for his hit to James’ groin.
What was all too apparent, however, was that Love will remain in the crosshairs whether he’s starting or not should the series end with the Warriors lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy on Monday.
“It was our game to have tonight, and we didn’t make plays when we needed to,” Love said. “That was on all of us. I mean, we feel like we could be sitting at 2-2, but we have a hell of a task in front of us.”