The playoffs are a duel of liabilities. There are no secrets when the film stretches for games on end; an extended series shines a light into every corner where a limited player might hide, every nook that would otherwise give an imbalanced team cover. Stars can become targets. One-way contributors can become unplayable. The postseason gives every team time to pore over their one opponent in incredible detail and rework their best schemes accordingly. Some teams are better at creating leverage from potential mismatches than others, but all are, one way or another, brought to a reckoning with their limitations.
Kevin Love was supposed to be that sort of bug for Cleveland—if not in the early rounds of the playoffs, then surely against Golden State in the NBA Finals. Better defenders than Love have been played off the floor by the Warriors. Their offense revolves so much that even those matchups that seem safe often aren’t. Every defender is forced to handle off-ball action, reconciling screen after screen.
With Love, in particular, Golden State will churn through actions until it lands the Cavalier where it likes, only to then plunge Love into a pick-and-roll involving either Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant. These situations play to Love’s exact weaknesses as a defensive player: iffy positioning, unreliable timing, and unexceptional rim protection. Those qualities gave fair cause to wonder just how involved Love could be in a championship series like this in the first place.
Then a funny thing happened as the series played out: Love delivered. He worked with his teammates to make sense of those off-ball exchanges. Golden State still targets him (going at Love, even on his best day, remains a better idea than going at LeBron James or Tristan Thompson), but Love has largely held up under that scrutiny. Defending the Warriors means understanding a certain number of borderline uncontestable pull-up threes will go down, but Love has stuck with the shuffling activity on switches and traps that the Cavaliers need from him.
When providing help, Love has been amazingly opportunistic; through four games in this series he has totaled 11 steals, more than in the first three playoff rounds combined. Those forced turnovers aren’t coming from rips on the ball or even leaps into the passing lanes. This series has showcased Love at his most situationally aware. Simply by positioning himself to cut off certain angles and closing the gap while the ball is in the air, Love has made himself an active disruptor.
Most important: Love is in the right places often enough in these Finals to work as a reliable team defender. Cleveland’s guards and wings know what to expect from him when he pressures out on the perimeter. They trust him to make switches and see him working through his rotations. Love might not actually stop Durant by meeting him at the rim, but the fact that he’s there on time to even go up and try speaks to his progress.
His contributions are muted next to James and Kyrie Irving, but Cleveland would be completely sunk—and possibly already eliminated—without Love playing energetic, well-intentioned defense for 33 minutes a night. Guarding well enough to stay on the floor means something extra in a series where Tristan Thompson had, until Game 4, given the Cavs so little; Love had to be stable or the entire big-man rotation (save LeBron) would be wholly exploitable. Instead, his play on both ends helped to bring Cleveland within three minutes of a win in Game 3 before blowing the doors off of Game 4.
It wasn’t until that most recent installment that Love’s long-range shooting really solidified, but in the meantime he had scrapped his way through. In last year’s Finals, Love (who suffered a concussion in the middle of the series) acted as a standstill floor spacer. Not so this time around; the ball stays in the hands of James and Irving as primary playmakers, but Love is moving to create angles and working to find his spots inside. A Love post-up against Kevin Durant might not seem like a great option on-face, but Love has bruised his way into enough fouls and makes for the premise to work.
Love has found his balance: in all he’s scoring 18.5 points per game with 42.9% shooting from beyond the arc, all while still grabbing five more offensive rebounds than any other player in the series and averaging 11.5 boards in total. This kind of production is effectively the stakes of Love’s defense. By proving to his coaches and teammates that he can compete against the Warriors defensively, Love has earned the minutes and opportunity to do what he does best.
In the end, whatever Love does might still go eclipsed by the Warriors in supernova. His defending well enough to earn his keep doesn’t at all mean that the Cavs as a team will be able to defend well enough to extend the series. Durant, Curry, Green, and Klay Thompson present the sorts of problems that go far above Love and beyond him. Still it’s worth noting that one of the players most situationally vulnerable in this series not only defied his limitations—as he did on one key possession against Curry in the 2016 Finals—but made good on all that could be reasonably asked of him.