His defense wasn't even that big of an issue -- at least not directly -- when the Golden State Warriors flitted all over the visiting Cavs during Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals. The Cavs stashed Love on the least-threatening Warriors -- first Andrew Bogut, and when Golden State downsized into the Death Lineup, secondary wings Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes.
The Warriors could still target Love, of course; they've seen and conquered every bit of defensive gimmickry the wider NBA has summoned over the past two years. But forcing them away from their bread-and-butter pick-and-roll combination -- the Steph Curry-Draymond Green show -- is the first step to having a chance to win. Cleveland checked that box by shifting Love away from that action, slotting the frenetic Tristan Thompson onto Green and ordering Thompson to switch onto Curry when trouble brewed.
But for all the attention on the Warriors' pick-and-roll ballet, they aren't really a pick-and-roll team at heart; only the antiquated New York Knicks set fewer ball screens this season, per NBA tracking data provided to ESPN.com. There are occasional rumblings within the team for Steve Kerr to unplug his beautiful machine of complex whirring parts, keep things simple and run some damn ball screens for Curry.
The Warriors slice teams apart with cuts, canny off-ball screening and the deadliest transition attack of the 3-point era. It was hard to spot the presence of Love's bad defense in Games 1 and 2, but if you looked carefully at those pieces of the Warriors' offense in Cleveland's Game 3 destruction, you could find evidence of Love's absence. It rippled across Cleveland's defense in subtle, empowering ways, and if Love clears the concussion protocol and returns Friday night for Game 4, the team should try bringing him off the bench.
Ty Lue is right that part of Cleveland's Game 3 rebound stemmed from simply playing harder and with more focus. With a little help from his friends -- including one well-timed lunge from Thompson to buy time on a backdoor cut -- Kyrie Irving navigated this typical Golden State maze while sticking to both Curry and Klay Thompson:
Just a ho-hum stop for the Cavs, even if Klay Thompson will knock down some contested 3s like that over smaller defenders. But watch it again with Love in mind, and one detail stands out: LeBron James starts the possession on Thompson, with Richard Jefferson on Green (LeBron's main Game 3 mark) and J.R. Smith tracking Barnes. That was not the assignment list on Cleveland's whiteboard.
That's where you feel Love's absence. Without him, the Cavs can more or less guard the nearest player when Golden State pushes the ball after a Cleveland miss. They have one fewer minus defender to worry about. They don't have to scan the floor, check to see if Love is caught in some untenable mismatch and zigzag around to save him.
Contrast that bit of clean defense with this mess from Game 1:
At first glance, that has almost nothing to do with Love. LeBron lets Barnes go, Irving is slow to switch onto him and Barnes obliterates Irving on the block as if he isn't there.
But that breakdown is actually all about Love, even though Love did nothing horribly wrong. Check out Love in the right corner at the start of the play: He's stuck on Klay Thompson. That is the hangover effect of a Golden State defensive switch on the other end that left Thompson guarding Love. The Warriors love to do that: Screw up the matchups, get a stop and make your head spin in transition as you try to snap back into your preferred assignments.
LeBron reads Love on Thompson as a crisis, makes a unilateral decision to switch onto Thompson and expects Love to reciprocate by sliding onto Barnes. Love doesn't reciprocate, and there is nothing worse in this life than unrequited Love. Barnes springs open and finally bullies Irving.
One bit of fretting -- Oh god, Kevin is on Klay! -- triggered a chain of events that tore apart Cleveland's defense in about two seconds. Love's specific limitations compound the anxiety. He's slow-footed and he has never shaken the maddening habit of admiring his own jumpers while his man leaks out ahead of him. That crap is fatal against the Warriors.
Cleveland's set defense in Game 3, with the right matchups in place, just had more zip to it. Look at how hyperalert and pouncy the Cavaliers were here:
Irving sprints around three screens almost untouched, a massive turnaround from his confused, slow work in Oakland. Smith lunges off of Klay Thompson, toward Curry, just in case Irving needs a half-second to recover as Curry catches the ball. LeBron reads Smith's help and slides hard toward Thompson -- snuffing a potential shot there. The possession dies.
Golden State makes all five opposing players defend. Love wasn't on the floor there, but at some point, the possession would have touched him -- perhaps triggering the sort of emergency help rotations and switches that bend a defense beyond recognition.
You can win the title worrying about covering for one weak defender. Trying to cover for two stresses a defense to its breaking point, which is why I wrote before the Finals that perhaps the biggest question hovering over the series was whether the Cavs could survive with both Love and Irving on the floor. Against 28 teams, that isn't in question. Against the Warriors, it is, and mid-June is not a time for coddling anyone's ego.
Love can still play an important role coming off the bench. The Warriors have stamped Cleveland's much-heralded, weirdo second unit of Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Jefferson, James and Channing Frye right out of the series; the Cavs haven't really found a workable alternative yet. Even amid the pall of Game 3, Golden State rallied at the start of the second quarter to make a game of it.
Love could serve as the fulcrum of a revamped bench offense, and he'll get the ball more in that setup than he ever will starting alongside Irving and LeBron. There is only one ball, as the kids say. Love still brings enough value as third option that bringing him off the bench won't necessarily turn him into Cleveland's version of Enes Kanter.
Love can shoot 3s, crash the offensive boards and toss smart passes all over the floor. If he hangs with Iguodala or Barnes on defense and busts it in transition, he can earn extra minutes with Cleveland's A-team at the end of each half.
Love has been ineffective in the post, but the Cavs will probably need his bully-ball at some point. They finally caught Golden State scrambling away from 3-point shooters in Game 3, but the Warriors will lock back in on defense Friday night. That was probably their worst defensive performance in a game that actually mattered all season. They have already shown that their switching scheme allows them to play Cleveland's pick-and-rolls one-on-one, negating the need for any help defenders to crash into the lane -- and stray from the Cavs' army of shooters.
Cleveland needs to suck in that help somehow, and Love's post game -- in the right matchup, at least -- represents one avenue for that. But given their success in Game 3, the Cavs should transform Love into a bench weapon.
Other random thoughts on a pivotal Game 4:
• Is this the biggest game in Cleveland franchise history? I think it might be.
• The Warriors face their own key question on defense: Who should Curry guard? He was awful and spaced out against everyone in Game 3. Irving destroyed him from the jump, in every possible way -- pick-and-rolls, crossovers, one-on-one play and off-ball movement. (It's out of fashion in the NBA, but sometimes I wonder if each team should give its point guard more chances to go into one-on-one attack mode against his counterpart.)
Klay Thompson has been miles better against Irving, and the Warriors started the second half of Game 3 with Curry on Smith -- an easier matchup for him. But Smith finally got off, and he's tall enough to shoot contested 3s over Curry. Thompson can erase Smith almost entirely.
The cleanest solution is to slot Thompson onto Irving full-time, and that's where I was leaning after Game 3. But with some time to think about it, perhaps the Warriors should give Curry one more shot at Irving. Curry isn't a great defender, but he can at least be a sound one when he's dialed in. If he can avoid screens, stay engaged and stick close to Irving, he should be able to make things hard for him.
This is a less-dangerous version of the gamble Golden State took during the early parts of the Oklahoma City series, when Curry spent a lot of time guarding Russell Westbrook. The Warriors knew they had better defenders for the job, and that Curry could chill on Andre Roberson. But Kerr likes prodding Curry, and the Warriors thought they could bait Westbrook into a lot of bad hero-mode shots. They probably think slotting Curry into Irving might tempt Uncle Drew the same way.
But if it goes badly again, Kerr should make the switcheroo sooner.
• The Cavs smartly set a ton of ball screens for Irving with their centers, knowing the Warriors would not switch behemoths like Bogut and Festus Ezeli onto him. That always represented a path to pull-up jumpers and jitterbug drives, but it hadn't really worked until Game 3.
Part of that was Curry's casual defense, but Irving deserves credit for making quick choices. When he juked Curry at the point of attack, he rose for open 3s. When he drove at Golden State's lumbering bigs, he tortured them with in-and-out dribble and crossovers, drew help and made the correct pass:
This prompted cries for Kerr to sit Bogut and unleash Death Lineups for the entire second half. Kerr bristled at the suggestion after the game, and reiterated at practice on Thursday that teams typically don't make "dramatic adjustments" until they face some crisis at the midpoint of the series.
Golden State is not facing a crisis. The Warriors are up 2-1 and have lost consecutive games exactly once all season. But part of the appeal of this matchup is the ability to play almost as many minutes as they'd like without a traditional center on the floor -- a spacey setup that extends the defense to the boundary lines in every direction. Tristan Thompson cannot set up shop in the lane as a pseudo-zone helper if Bogut isn't on the floor:
Kerr will probably start Bogut again Friday night. Remember: His smothering rim protection set the tone for Golden State in Game 2, and the Warriors won easily with their centers playing about 60 percent of nongarbage minutes in Oakland. Thompson destroyed Barnes and Green on the offensive glass in Game 3, especially when LeBron drew extra attention on shots near the rim.
But Thompson is too quick for Bogut, and I'd expect Kerr to play the Green-at-center card sooner, and for longer stretches, if he needs to in Game 4.
• Look again at that photo above: Irving has switched onto Green, and Tristan Thompson is pointing frantically for a complicated second switch. He wants to take Green, send Irving out to Iguodala and have Jefferson slide down toward Bogut.
That kind of superswitching is dangerous. It puts so many guys in motion all over the floor. Cleveland should know; the Hawks tried a version of it in the conference semis, and once the Cavs absorbed it, they just passed the ball ahead of every Atlanta move. If the Warriors are ready for it, they might be able to exploit the strategy with precise passes and targeted off-ball screens. If they can slide entry passes to Green with Irving on him, Green might be able to bulldoze easy buckets -- or draw double-teams.
• Tristan Thompson was better switching onto Curry in Game 3. He had laid too far back in the first two games and failed to shade Curry in the direction Cleveland wants. He ran at Curry like a maniac in Game 3, without losing control of his momentum. Still: Maybe Curry can use head-and-shoulder fakes to coax Thompson into flying by him, and then either rise for 3s or drive unchallenged into the paint.
• For the first time all playoffs, the Cavs in Game 3 used a lineup I mentioned in my series preview: Irving, Smith, Shumpert, LeBron and Thompson. They also broke out a similar group with Frye in Thompson's place. Those groups didn't get much run in the regular season, mostly because they struggled on defense, but they were plus-8 over eight combined minutes in Game 3.
Lue should go back to them Friday night, even if doing so might tempt Kerr to unleash the Death Lineup. They bring a nice of mix of speed, defense, switchability and shooting. They also surround Shumpert with playmakers, and Shumpert needs stars to create shots for him. Smith earned Shumpert's starting spot, but in going that direction the Cavs kind of lost Shumpert by separating him from LeBron more often.
"It is a comfort zone for me," Shumpert said Thursday. "It's always fun to run the wing with J.R. and Bron or Ky pushing the ball."
It's a little thing, but the Cavs did well to involve Shumpert more in the offense -- especially when Curry was on him. Shumpert set eight ball screens combined for Irving and LeBron in Game 3 after having set just four total over the first two games, per NBA tracking data.
Cleveland was generally much better targeting Curry wherever he was, and dragging him into pick-and-roll action: That is really great offense -- the kind Cleveland will need damn near every time down to win this series. The Cavs hunted Curry, worked their way to a mismatch and sprung Irving on the weak side with a nasty flare screen.
The Cavs figured some stuff out in Game 3. If they win again, buckle up.