LeBron James needs both of his side kicks to step up to win a title. Only one Cavaliers star is complying right now.

By Ben Leibowitz
April 23, 2015

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are experiencing very different postseason debuts. Cleveland’s two complementary stars had never played in an NBA playoff game prior to last week, but they've gotten their feet wet with a 2-0 series lead on the Celtics. If the Cavaliers are going to advance even further and contend for a title, they'll need the two to acclimate quickly.

LeBron James needs his new squires to play the way fans know they’re capable—like stars. That’s something LeBron has been pushing Love to do all season. Following what was arguably Love’s best performance in a Cavs uniform—32 points (7-of-8 from three-point range) and 10 rebounds in a 120-105 win over the Lakers on Feb. 8—James tweeted the following, which he later acknowledged was a cryptic message aimed at his new teammate.

Love had previously used the fit in/fit out dichotomy when discussing his new team in the preseason, as ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported. The explosion against the Lakers was a deviation from the norm, however, as Love averaged 16.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game throughout the season—both registered as the lowest since his second NBA season in 2009-10.

He also shot just 43.4% from the field overall—his lowest mark in any full season. Moreover, his player efficiency rating (PER) for the 2014-15 regular season dropped down to 18.8.

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It was to be expected that Love’s numbers would dip in a fashion comparable to Chris Bosh when he made the move from Toronto to South Beach. Shifting from go-to guy to second or third fiddle on a team with LeBron has that effect. Nevertheless, Love rarely seemed at ease with his new situation, becoming more of a glorified stretch 4 than a complementary star.

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The playoff atmosphere provides an outlet for Love to show out and return to the dominant force he was in Minnesota, but his performance in a small sample size has been lackluster. Through two games against the upstart Celtics, Love is averaging 16 points, nine rebounds and three assists per game. Those numbers aren’t pedestrian by any means, but the 26-year-old has made just 36.4% of his field goal attempts. He turned the ball over four times in Game 2 while committing five personal fouls.

Assuming the Cavs will get past the Celts (a likely outcome, barring the unthinkable), Love will have to be better—plain and simple. He’s been average by his lofty standards, and that’s not going to cut it against superior opponents moving deeper into the playoffs.

As for Irving, well, he’s been flat-out brilliant.

The 23-year-old point guard is averaging 28 points, four rebounds and four assists through two games. He’s also knocking down 48.7% of his field goals and 47.1% of his threes (8-of-17) thus far. It’s highly unlikely he’ll remain that efficient throughout the remainder of the playoffs, but even if he falls back to Earth, he’ll be an ideal wingman for James. Frankly, that’s a role he’s played with aplomb all season long.

Throughout the 2014-15 regular season, the Cavaliers were a vastly superior offensive team with Irving on the court. That’s not much of a shock, given his skillset, but an offensive rating of 114.1 with him on the court versus 103.8 with him on the bench is an alarmingly stark contrast. That differential has been even better through two postseason games: 117 with Irving and 103.1 without.

Irving is relishing the spotlight that accompanies the playoff stage. Despite his inexperience, he’s playing with a poise and confidence that will no doubt reward David Blatt in a more competitive series.

The Cavs unquestionably have the talent necessary to win it all. Irving and Love, however, will be the wild cards around the proven James. If Love can somehow assert himself more frequently by ripping down boards and dominating on offense (as he did for the Timberwolves), while Irving continues to embrace the big moment, there would be little reason to doubt the trio’s ability to contend for a championship.

More from Ben Leibowitz:

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