CLEVELAND -- For three excruciating days -- in Canada, through customs and back to Cleveland -- Kevin Love festered in his own failure.
Before the Eastern Conference finals shifted to Toronto for Games 3 and 4 last weekend, the Cleveland Cavaliers forward’s postseason was as sterling as his team’s perfect 10-0 start to the playoffs would suggest. Double-doubles were delivered, sometimes even by halftime. Plays were made on both ends of the court. Love lifted his game to a level that made his inclusion in a Big Three alongside LeBron James and Kyrie Irving appropriate, instead of playing the awkward third wheel.
It all started falling apart for the eighth-year forward in Toronto. Two games. Two losses. Two fourth quarters when he didn’t play a single second. And two stats lines he’d just as soon like to forget: Three points on 1-for-9 shooting and four rebounds in Game 3; 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting and seven rebounds in Game 4.
Making matters worse, Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue went to Channing Frye instead of Love in the fourth quarter of Game 4, and the Cavs immediately mounted a furious comeback, turning a nine-point deficit into a three-point lead in less than six minutes of game time -- with Frye scoring nine points during the 23-11 run.
With the way the Cavs have played north of the border this season -- they're now 0-4, including the regular season, at the Air Canada Centre -- Wednesday’s Game 5 at Quicken Loans Arena took on much greater significance. A loss would put the Cavs one game away from elimination going up to a building filled with fans representing not only a city starved for an NBA championship, but an entire nation.
The Cavs, and Love, made sure it never came to that by running the Raptors out of their building, embarrassing them 116-78 in Game 5 to go up 3-2 in the series and sapping them of their strength just as quickly as Toronto sapped Love's strength in the two games that preceded Wednesday night's blowout.
Love scored the first bucket of the game, a turnaround hook shot in the lane, and proceeded to tack on five more without a miss. By the time he had one rim out on him -- a bunny just inches from the hoop -- Cleveland was already up by 32 points.
He finished with a game-high 25 points on 8-for-10 shooting -- even tacking on two blocks and a steal on the defensive end -- in just 24 minutes. His night ended early again, just like it did in Games 3 and 4, but under vastly different circumstances, as Cleveland led by 40 headed into the final frame.
“Before we get started,” Lue said in his opening remarks at the postgame podium, “I know Kevin didn’t play in the fourth quarter, so you don’t have to ask it. Next question.”
The real question was, how was Love able to re-engage so quickly after seemingly losing his way? It turns out a talk with Lue and a phone call from the guy some were calling to be his replacement on a more regular basis -- Frye -- did the trick.
“[Frye] called me and said, ‘Live in the moment, first of all,’” Love told ESPN.com. “He’s like, ‘You’re 27 years old, you’re playing in the Eastern Conference finals.’ He goes, ‘We don’t care if you 0-for-25. Just be aggressive, make an impact on the game and go out there and play hard. Let’s get a win.’ But he also told me no one is immune to the NBA playoffs, either. That kind of stuff happens. There’s different ways to impact the game. There’s different ways to get the job done. That was a big deal for me to hear that come from him.
"He also gave me an example of himself going through it. The Western Conference finals in 2010. He was like, ‘I was 1-for-20! And I had to find a way to make an impact and get stuff done.’”
Indeed, Frye missed 19 of his first 20 shots during that series, as his Phoenix Suns dropped two of the first three games, eventually losing in six to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers. Frye waited six long years to get back to the postseason with the Cavs this spring, but after his big night in Game 4, he was more concerned with helping Love than himself.
“That, coming from him, just shows you a good example of where this team is mentally, and having teammates like that goes a long way,” Love said.
Love set the tone on Wednesday, asserting himself inside, bombing away from deep and -- when Toronto called a first-quarter timeout with the onslaught already unleashed -- beckoning for the crowd to get louder.
“Oh, really?” Lue said, smiling at the thought of Love -- whose body language at times through his first two years in Cleveland vacillated between uncomfortable and disinterested -- owning the moment.
“I just think it’s trust,” said Lue, explaining Love’s turnaround. “I think it’s trust. When he feels the guys trust him, he trusts the guys. I think that’s the biggest thing. When you’re part of a team, you trust one another. He feels that trust and he feels that love. That’s why he’s opened up more and you can see more of who Kevin Love really is.”
Getting more of Love was Lue’s goal from day one after he took over for David Blatt midseason. It has taken more coaching than he might have expected -- his talk with Love on Tuesday was predated by others just like it, both privately and in front of the team, since January -- but the teacher has found a willing student.
“It’s not even ‘buying in,’” Love explained to ESPN.com. “That’s the wrong term. I would say trust -- and also, that’s built really a family-type atmosphere. We preach that all the time. We say it, but now we’re really walking that walk in a lot of ways. More than anything, it makes the game so much fun.”
It's fun for Love and rewarding for his teammates to witness his growth.
“It’s very difficult and you feel like you’re by yourself,” James, an author of infamous playoff failures in the past, said when asked about Love’s struggles. “I’ve been there before, when you’re a big part of a puzzle and things just don’t go the way you either dreamed about or the way you thought it was going to be.
“You feel like you’re by yourself for 24 or 48 hours or however long the case may be. To see him come out the way he did tonight, just aggressive from the beginning [in the paint] ... we knew from that point on that’s where he wanted it, and we continued to go to him.”
It led this reporter to ask Love if, all things considered, it was the greatest game of his life.
“Tonight?” Love responded. “I think it was a great opportunity just for me to be resilient and bounce back.”
Besides, the Cavs are just one win away from the championship round. Better to save a feat like that for the NBA Finals.