CLEVELAND -- Kevin Love's stat line, which once was his only solace on most nights when he was putting up nutty numbers during Minnesota Timberwolves losses, was a throwback in Thursday’s 124-118 victory over the Boston Celtics.
For the first time in Love’s nearly 2½ seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Love put up 30 points and 15 rebounds, something he did with impressive regularity for the Wolves (27 times in six seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- the most by any player in the NBA from 2008-09 to 2013-14).
Thursday was a punctuation type of night in an already stellar campaign, as Love is averaging 22 points and 10.9 rebounds, making him one of only five players in the league putting up an average of at least 20 points and 10 boards this season (with Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins being the others). Love also has a career-high 1.1 steals per game and shooting percentages (45.8 percent overall, 40.7 percent from 3) near the best of his eight-plus seasons.
With his value on the Eastern Conference-leading Cavs firmly in place – even LeBron James, he of the “fit out/fit in” tweet critique a couple of years ago, complimented Love and Kyrie Irving for “carrying” Cleveland on a night he dubbed himself “horrible” – Love spoke to ESPN.com about what’s motivating his return-to-form season.
Was there something to that breakout game coming against Boston, specifically? The team that employs Kelly Olynyk, the guy who ripped his shoulder out of its socket, causing him to miss the Cavs’ Finals run in 2015? The team that as recently as this summer was still popping up in trade rumors involving him being swapped for Jae Crowder and others?
“It’s the same thing with L.A.,” said Love, whose father, Stan, once played for the Los Angeles Lakers. “The fact that I was born there (in Santa Monica, California), that’s been going on my whole career. That never went away.”
Of course, in the summer of 2014 before his trade to the Cavs, the Celtics were the team that became a presumed destination for Love after he spent a weekend in July touring Boston and was courted by Beantown’s stars at the time -- a meet-up with Rajon Rondo, a tweet from David Ortiz.
“Rob [McClanaghan] is from Rhode Island, so he’s like, ‘You got to come. You got to come,’” Love said, recalling the invitation from his trainer. “And then my agent, Jeff Schwartz, is a big Boston Red Sox fan and based there and was like, ‘We got to go. We got to go [to a game].’ So I was like, ‘OK.’ And that stirred the pot even more. But I grew up like anybody. I remember watching the battles with ‘Showtime’ and Larry Bird.
“And [Kevin] McHale was my coach [in Minnesota]. So with that whole dynamic and that sort of thing, I think naturally, that has become another, I guess, storyline for me. Because when I first got here, immediately people wanted to trade me; I don’t know. Or the talk was that I was going to be traded so something like that and immediately they thought, ‘Boston! If it’s not L.A., then it’s Boston!’ So I think that’s what comes with that.”
The trade talk has been silenced. It’s hard to even imagine where the Cavs would be this season – with J.R. Smith’s thumb injury and an inconsistent bench – without Love’s steadying presence.
Love's return to the All-Star Game in February seems all but inevitable after his run of three All-Star appearances in his final four years in Minnesota was interrupted by two lackluster seasons in Cleveland.
“I said three guys aren’t going to make it when we were, what, the fifth seed,” Love said, recalling his pragmatic take on the 2014-15 season. “I thought last year two guys would have made it, and then [the East] had an injury replacement and I thought, maybe, [with his] double-double [credentials]. ... But I’m not going to get my hopes up.”
Hope shouldn’t be part of the equation this season. If the All-Star team is constructed as it has been in the past -- based on individual statistics combined with winning -- Love will join James and Irving in New Orleans for the star-studded exhibition weekend.
“I talked about it today. It doesn’t validate me at all,” Love said, alluding to a similar conversation he had with Cleveland.com. “I know how good of a player I am, even this year. It’s funny. I sit back, and I’m like, I never forgot how to play the game. It’s always been me. But I think getting that, I guess, monkey off the back or that championship off the back, so to speak, has helped everybody be a little bit more calm, and we know exactly what we want to do under [Cavs coach] Ty [Lue].”
It’s been well-chronicled how Lue has featured Love better than former coach David Blatt ever did, appealing to Love's pride while staying consistent in his investment in the stretch forward. Love has responded quite well.
“I think it’s confidence and just knowing,” Love said. “Because I think my first year, year and a half, I never knew when to be aggressive. Not necessarily not knowing the right play to make, but I didn’t know how to walk the walk in this offense or with this team. So, I think that evolved, and this is definitely the most comfortable I’ve been. That goes without saying.”
Along with that comfort, Love has his health. After a balky back marred his first season in Cleveland and shoulder rehabilitation hampered his second, he has come back for Year 3 in great shape and physically able to handle the rigors of the season. “My body feels really good,” Love said. “My body feels great. I think that always helps.”
The same could be said about his mindset as the calendar readies to flip to 2017.
“I mean, it’s tough because you look at so many people passed, right? It’s just such a bad year in that regard,” Love said before starting to rattle off names from Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds to Muhammad Ali, Prince, David Bowie and Dave Mirra. “So many people. ... Greats from every aspect.
“It’s definitely a sad year in that regard, but for me personally, it was the best year of my life. 2016 was a great year for me.”