There were many layers to Thursday’s showdown between the Spurs and Cavaliers, a 99–95 victory for San Antonio that lived up to its billing as a potential Finals preview. LeBron James (22 points, seven rebounds) and Kawhi Leonard (20 points, 10 rebounds) exchanged gasp-inducing highlights, Tony Parker (24 points) scored a somewhat unexpected triumph in his matchup with Kyrie Irving, and San Antonio’s depth advantage (35–12 bench scoring), a strength for years, helped Gregg Popovich and company dig out of a double-digit first-half deficit to remain a perfect 23–0 at the AT&T Center this season.
But one wrinkle stood out above the others: The Spurs maintained control throughout the fourth quarter by exploiting Kevin Love’s defensive limitations in numerous ways. Love, who was injured for most of Cleveland’s 2015 postseason run, simply looked in over his head during closing time. By nature, San Antonio’s pass-heavy attack has a way of exposing the opposition’s weakest link. That turned out to be Love, time and again down the stretch.
Indeed, Love was involved at least to some degree on San Antonio’s final six field goals of regulation. Let’s take a look at each.
Shortly after re-entering the game with a little more than nine minutes remaining in regulation and San Antonio leading 80–75, Love found himself matched up with Tim Duncan as Patty Mills brought the ball up the court early in the shot clock. Mills, a career 38.6% three-point shooter, used a pair of screens at the top of the key in an attempt to free himself from Matthew Dellavedova. Duncan held up Dellavedova with the second screen, leaving Mills time to set up for a three-pointer. Rather than switch—or even step out late to contest—Love played soft all the way back to the elbow. Mills immediately lined up the wide-open three-pointer.
Look at all this room. Way too easy. 83–75 Spurs.
Less than two minutes later, Leonard worked on James on the right wing as Duncan, who was guarded by Love, set a cross-screen for David West, who was being guarded by Tristan Thompson. Worried that West would pop open for a midrange jumper, Love switched on West. In doing so, he turned his back on the play, allowing Leonard an easy drive to the rim. With Thompson moved out of the play by Duncan and Love unable to recover to help, Leonard finished an uncontested layup on the weakside. 85–75 Spurs.
On San Antonio’s next possession, Love found himself chasing the action; he just so happened to be a step late at every stage. As Manu Ginobili drove baseline from the left wing, Love read the play and attempted to deflect a pass headed for the right corner. He couldn’t get a finger on the ball, however, and a quick skip pass by Mills to Duncan left Love roughly 10 feet away from his man with no one else helping. Duncan calmly took his time making use of the open space, pounding two dribbles to his left before he tossed up a signature runner over the top of Love, who lacks the length and the wingspan to really alter the shot. Duncan’s runner bounced in. 87–77 Spurs.
The Spurs’ offense went dry for a few possessions, but it got a crucial hoop with just under three minutes to play. With the shot clock running down, San Antonio again looked to put Love in a pick-and-roll scenario in space. Parker and Duncan set up a two-man game up top, with Parker driving hard to his right and drawing Love on the switch. So far, so good. But only for a second.
Seeing that Irving wasn’t actually screened by Duncan, Love turned his head away from Parker, as if he expected Irving to recover. Point No. 1: Parker is a future Hall of Famer and a proficient and willing midrange shooter. Point No. 2: There were less than five seconds left on the shot clock when Parker turned the corner. Point No. 3: Irving never made any motion like he was planning to recover onto Parker. Love finished this play by spinning a full circle around as Parker drained the jumper, which he embellished with a knowing smile and shout to the courtside fans.
Look at this. Back to the ball. Way too easy (again). 93–84 Spurs.
With the game tightening up in the closing minute, San Antonio simply cleared the court and let Duncan go to work one-on-one against Love. Why not? Duncan drove to the middle from the left wing before reverse pivoting, in classic “Big Fundamental” style, to set up a turnaround jumper over Love. Although Love handled Duncan’s series of moves just fine, his height and length disadvantages still left Duncan with a clean look from roughly 10 feet away and with one foot in the paint. The timeless banker rattled in. Spurs 95–88.
One more for the road. With a five-point lead and 30 seconds remaining, the Spurs milked the clock before giving the ball to Duncan just inside the arc. With Love guarding him tightly, Duncan coolly set up a dribble hand-off for Ginobili, who was coming hard for the ball with a step or two of separation from J.R. Smith. Even at 38, Ginobili had little trouble using his head of steam to get past Love, who switched immediately but doesn’t have the necessary lateral quickness to stop or deflect the drive. Ginobili took two long strides to get to the basket area and kissed in a banking lefty layup. Love simply wasn’t long enough to truly contest the shot from behind. Spurs 97–90.
Exactly how Love fits into Cleveland’s late-game lineups come playoff time remains an open question, one that wasn’t able to be answered last year due to his unfortunate shoulder injury. The early returns, both on Christmas against the Warriors and Thursday against the Spurs, leave much to be desired.
Clearly, these clips include correctable mistakes and baskets that resulted from factors Love can’t necessarily fix (his physical tools, etc.). San Antonio made Cleveland pay for Love’s lack of awareness (the Mills three and the Parker jumper), his lack of foot speed (the Ginobili runner), his lack of length (the two Duncan buckets) and his questionable positioning (the Leonard layup and the Duncan runner). If Love expects to be on the court during crunch time against either the Warriors or Spurs in the 2016 Finals, he’s going to need to do a lot better than this.