OKLAHOMA CITY -- As the Cleveland Cavaliers stretched their late third-quarter lead north of 20 points on Sunday, and Kevin Love stood square in the lane absorbing a charge from 6-foot-11, 245-pound Enes Kanter, the stunned silence at Chesapeake Energy Arena was pierced by a lone voice.
His outburst was meant to be a dig at referee Jason Phillips for giving Love the type of favorable call that superstars like James are apt to receive.
The funny part about the heckler's cry was that Love actually did look like James in the 115-92 win against the Thunder, in so much as he had a truly dominating performance in every part of the game.
Love has scored more for Cleveland before than the 29 points he had on 9-for-18 shooting (less than a month ago he matched that total with a win against Detroit). He has grabbed more rebounds than the 11 he collected on dozens of occasions. He has even affected games defensively the way he did with plays like drawing that offensive foul on Kanter (remember the defensive plays he made down the stretch in that overtime win in Indiana at the beginning of the month?). But he never did it all in the same game.
It's not hyperbole to say this was the best game Love has played in a Cavs uniform. Afterward, when a Cavs assistant was asked what had gotten into Love on Sunday, he replied, "Whatever it is, we're going to bottle it."
There was no magical formula. No "Space Jam" secret stuff either. What we saw was someone with harmony in mind and body looking as if he was excited about playing, excited about competing, excited about taking responsibility for his team's success or lack thereof.
"Just his aggressiveness," James marveled, no slouch himself with 25 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds and 3 steals as he and Love more than made up for Kyrie Irving leaving because of a stomach virus after playing only nine minutes. "His aggressiveness and his mentality. From grabbing rebounds, to he went to the [foul] line 10 times. So that lets me know he was very aggressive on the offensive end and every single time we needed something, we went to him. And he answered the call."
Love actually attempted 12 free throws -- a season high total -- and made 11. He fought through screens from Serge Ibaka. He was vocal in calling out schemes. He was engaged from tip to final horn and looked every bit as much like the player James vowed at the beginning of the season would be the Cavs' "focal point" on offense and the player the team would "ride his coattails" while Irving recovered from offseason surgery.
While James' statement at the time seemed ludicrous -- James with one of the most well-rounded skillsets in league history would always be the Cavs' focal point -- the gist of his message showed itself against the Thunder. To some extent, Cleveland will go as Love goes.
With him looking like a dynamic threat on both ends, the Cavs are a deep, inside-outside, hard-to-pin-down group. With him wilting away on the perimeter and allowing empty offensive possessions to sap his energy and commitment on the defensive end, the Cavs can become pretty predictable as James' and Irving's individual exploits take over for better or worse.
It's not a coincidence that Love's terrific outing comes only three days after the trade deadline. That was the mental relief he needed that proved Cleveland indeed wanted him to be a part of something special (and even if none of the deals floated for Love before Thursday seemed realistic, don't think for a second that stuff like that doesn't weigh on a guy). The physical affirmation came during the All-Star break, where Love didn't just drink mai tais on some beach, but rather trekked to Park City, Utah for a mini training camp in the punishing thin air to get his body right for the final stretch.
"It must have been that altitude training, because he looked pretty bouncy," Matthew Dellavedova said. "He was just aggressive ... and provided a presence down there where we can just dump him the ball when we needed a bucket. We're obviously going to need that moving forward."
Love's approach might have led the way, but it was echoed by the way Dellavedova went right at Russell Westbrook. "It doesn't matter who it is, a person or an animal or anything, Delly's not going to back down from anybody," James said.
And add the 35-year-old Richard Jefferson to the list of Cavs players who took it to the Thunder on their home court, alternating possessions guarding both Westbrook and Kevin Durant at times. "One thing about Richard is he competes," coach Tyronn Lue said. "He plays hard, he's physical. That's what we needed from him tonight and that's what he gave us."
If the 40-14 Cavs, now winners of five straight, can keep playing this way with a healthy Irving and the luxury of having a bench stocked with Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye and Mo Williams (all of whom were unavailable against Oklahoma City), then it isn't impossible to think they can get back that top contender status with which they started the season -- even in a league that also features the likes of Golden State and San Antonio.
"We have to bring the fight no matter who we're playing," James said. "It makes us more focused when we're physical. We're more in tune ... and I think the guys know that. It's not even a point of emphasis. We know when we go out there we have to bring it."
When Love brings it the way he did Sunday, the Cavs are a different animal.