CLEVELAND — Things were different for the Cleveland Cavaliers at this season’s home opener.
It’s not because the downtown traffic en route to the arena was caused by construction in preparation for the 2016 Republican National Convention, rather closed roads by the mass of people on hand to witness LeBron James’ return, complete with a free Imagine Dragons concert outside Quicken Loans Arena.
And it’s not because the Cavs were debuting a new maroon alternative jersey rather than the new blue alternate they sported last season.
For as far as the Cavaliers came in 2014-15, from a sub-.500 team at the halfway mark to two wins from a title, there remained a gap in the relationship between James and Love.
The duo was effective together because of their excellent skill sets, but that’s about where it ended. As the Cavs won games hand over fist from mid-January on, it was clear the two could coexist even with Love somewhat unhappy in his role in the offense and James unhappy that Love was unhappy (to James, that meant winning wasn’t enough for Love).
The disconnect became a moot point when Love went out with a dislocated shoulder in the first round of the playoffs. The Cavs marched on without him and barely skipped a beat as Tristan Thompson increased his role in Love’s stead.
Then Kyrie Irving joined Love on the injury list, James did his best to nearly drag Cleveland across the finish line anyway. Then at some point in the summer, while reflecting on how close he came, James decided to take a second look at what he had.
The steps that followed are well-known by now. James and Love met in Los Angeles to get on the same page. Love recommitted to the Cavs by signing a five-year, $113 million extension. And, come training camp, James set the tone for the season by propping Love up.
James declared last season’s home opener “one of the biggest sporting events … ever,” a blockbuster of a regular-season game that Love said he and some of his teammates treated the same way as an NBA Finals game.
In retrospect, it was like throwing a party to celebrate a store opening without actually knowing what’s stocked on the shelves.
“Time definitely changes a lot of things,” James said at shootaround Friday. “For us, last year we was a team that was uncertain about one another. We didn’t know. We was excited to play basketball with one another but we didn’t know what we were doing together as a unit. Even though we have some injuries now, we’re not at full strength, we have a sense of who we are. Last year we were trying to figure out who we wanted to be.”
Who the Cavs are now — at least through their 2-1 start to this season, while Irving remains on the mend — is a two-man conglomerate run by James and Love, with James pushing for his co-worker any chance he gets.
“Involving them and them involving one another in those actions only brings good things,” Cavs coach David Blatt said.
James took his support to another level this week, declaring Love will be back in the All-Star Game. And it isn’t just talk. According to player tracking data available on NBA.com, James made more passes to Love than any other teammate through the Cavs’ first two games. And Love shot a remarkable 63.6 percent when he put it up off a James feed, making seven of 11 attempts.
“On time, on target,” James told ESPN when informed of the stat.
Yes, but he makes good passes to all of his teammates. Was there a greater emphasis on specifically finding Love?
“You know when I go out and say something like that, I mean it,” James replied.
It only continued against Miami. Love added 14 rebounds and five assists against Miami, shining just as bright as James, who along with his game-high points total chipped in five rebounds and four assists.
The 24 points from Love stand out, but he scored 24 or more nine times last season. The rebounds were impressive, but he grabbed 14 or more boards 14 times last season. But Love only dished out five or more assists four times last season and all of those games came before the new year. When Cleveland made its late-season run, Love had an important and effective role, but it certainly didn’t involve the offensive flowing through him.
“Kev knows how great he is and how good he is for our team,” James said. “He showed it again tonight why he’s one of the best power forwards in our league and we need to continue to ride his coattails.”
It was the type of unabashed, almost over-the-top compliment that you just didn’t hear James pay to Love last season. And the funny part about it was Love had the same type of glowing review for James earlier in the day.
“I think as far as flow of the game and what we do in the half court, you will see me touching the ball a lot and us two working together, so I’m confident in LeBron too,” Love said. “I think he’s going to do all right.”
You know, it’s a good kind of different so far.