CLEVELAND -- It had been 15 days since Kevin Love last set foot in Quicken Loans Arena before Wednesday’s Game 2 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. In that short span of time, everything changed.
Love’s health, for one, from the season-ending shoulder surgery he underwent. Then there's Cleveland’s opponent and place in the postseason. The Cavaliers’ championship chances. And perhaps the most radical transformation: The reputation that attached itself to Love in the nine months since he joined the Cavs being entirely rebuilt.
After a regular season in which Love at times underperformed, at other times was underutilized and always was underappreciated, his absence, paired with a disappointing Game 1 loss to the Bulls, swayed the public perception of Love in entirely the opposite direction.
His value was suddenly crystal clear, his mere presence considered the missing puzzle piece. And not having him for Game 1 stirred up everyone’s emotions, prompting them to start thinking about not having Love for good should he choose to opt out of his contract this summer and find some greener grass out there through free agency.
The Cavs felt it too, from general manager David Griffin mentioning several times unsolicited about how excited Love was about Cleveland’s future, to others in the organization already starting to read the tea leaves, hoping that Love posing for a post-surgery photo on Instagram while wearing a Tribe hat was a sign that he, indeed, plans to put down roots in their city.
The organization knew Love would be back in the building Wednesday and wanted to seize the moment and show him how much they cared. The plan was to hand out 20,000 arm slings to the fans in attendance. The gesture of solidarity was a sound one, the execution was laughably flawed. Not only would 20,000 fans being restrained by slings limit the clapping volume and thus cut back on home-court advantage, but visually, it’d look like Love was being mocked more than he was being supported.
Someone came to their senses enough to scuttle the slings at the last minute and Love’s return ended up being a simple, genuine moment, instead of some prop-aided production. The Q showed Love on the video board shortly after he took his seat behind the Cavs' bench in the second quarter and fans screamed like crazy. Love smiled and remained seated and the crowd kept on roaring, reaching a deafening din when Love acknowledged them by standing up and waving.
It was the unofficial start to the Cavs’ re-recruitment of Love, and it was a good one. While the Los Angeles Lakers made misstep after misstep when faced with a similar situation several years ago to try to keep Dwight Howard -- from erecting “STAY” billboards that came off as pressuring rather than endearing, to having a pitch meeting when Kobe Bryant challenged whether Howard was even worth chasing in the first place -- the best asset that Cleveland has to offer was on display for Love to see on Wednesday: LeBron James.
With the Cavs' backs against the wall, facing a potential 0-2 hole headed to Chicago, James would simply not let them lose. He was masterful, finishing with 33 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block. His 14-point first quarter helped build a 20-point lead, a lead that would not dip below double digits for the final 42:09 of the game.
Walking away from Cleveland not only means walking away from more money and becoming a bit of an NBA nomad, joining a third team in his eighth season, but it means walking away from a teammate who can dominate like that, one of only a handful of players in the league who can single-handedly enforce his will on a game like that.
Kyrie Irving realizes what he has in James. There was a time this season when Irving would roll his eyes when asked about learning alongside the four-time MVP, but sharing the postgame podium with James after the Cavs’ 106-91 win in Game 2, you could see just how much he knows how special an opportunity it is to be on his side.
“That killer mindset of never stopping, it’s just never giving the defense a night off or any possession like that and I feel like he definitely did that tonight,” Irving said. “There wasn’t one possession where if you looked on the floor where he wasn’t dominant, whether it was a pass, a score, a defensive stop, a rebound or anything like that. He was all over, which we expect him to do. So, I feel like when he has that mindset, that killer mindset, not really caring what’s going on except for his teammates. He’s the greatest player playing in the game right now.”
Rather than toot his own horn, James thanked his teammates for “giving him the right” to be a leader and commanding excellence and credited Irving for being the one that pushed him in this case, and not the other way around.
And there Love was with a front-and-center seat for all of it, witnessing that performance, feeling that growth.
“Just having Kevin back, just seeing his face, just seeing his excitement,” James said when asked about Love. “Obviously we know he’s down about the injury, but you couldn’t tell by today. He was happy to be back. He had a great response from the fans. They love him here. And it was great to have him around today, for sure.”
Playing alongside James isn’t perfect, of course. Irving mentioned how it was an adjustment this season to the “pressure on each game and it’s just the regular season,” something that James’ good friend Dwyane Wade echoed months ago when he said how refreshing it felt to have a regular regular season without all the attention that James brings. There will be ancillary distractions that come from the machine that chronicles James. Secret handshakes will get dissected. Stats will be picked apart. Losses will be blown out of proportion. From time to time, James might even be the cause of all the nonsense, be it from a cryptic tweet or a pointed remark to the media. Even James' headband will create headlines.
But add it all up, and it’s more than worth it. James’ former teammate Shane Battier surprised him in the locker room after Game 2, and the two hugged like long-lost friends. All season long I’ve seen former teammates and even some opponents do the same thing with James -- Mario Chalmers, Leon Powe, Gerald Wallace, to name a few -- wanting to nourish that connection. James and Love might never be best friends, as Love already said, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t accomplish something great together.
All Love has to do is stay.