LeBron James, Kevin Love ignite rout of Spurs to show Cavs’ potential

The Cleveland Cavaliers needed this victory more than the San Antonio Spurs, and it showed. SI breaks down LeBron James and the Cavaliers’ 117–103 win.
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Ah, the wonders one week can work. Seven days ago, Tyronn Lue’s inaugural, 13-point loss to the Bulls was sputtering to a close with his team attempting to chart a new course without fired coach David Blatt. It was only logical to wonder what were the Cavaliers’ next steps, given an offense that wildly grasped at connectivity and rhythm despite a year of personnel continuity.

Cleveland has fallen into those sorts of ruts before, which is almost always cast as an affront to its wealth of talent. Though the Cavs have sat atop the East nearly all season, the heavy expectations and accompanying microscope hanging over them facilitate a little overreaction. Fairly or not, Kevin Love has often found himself at the center of those discussions.

On Saturday night with the Spurs in town, threatening to snap a three game Cavaliers winning streak and cast even more doubt on Cleveland’s title hopes, it was Love who shucked the noise and offered the loudest answer. A 37-point Cavaliers first quarter was bolstered by 14 aggressive, confident ones from the highly paid, equally scrutinized power forward. Love served as target man and release valve for a noticeably decisive attack. The Cavs’ hot start turned into a dominant half and a 117–103 win over an elite opponent that mattered most of all for the sake of controlling their own narrative.

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Lue has harped from the outset on playing faster, and though that message last week was initially confounding—including naming  Love, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and calling for increased conditioning—the thought process behind that vision came through on Saturday. The Cavaliers certainly fared well on the fast break, but the value of increased tempo can go further than the open court. Just getting the ball up quicker can breed an additional handful of seconds on the shot clock, allowing for added reversals, actions and if done correctly, a better shot. For proof, look no further than their opponents, who have raised five banners on that principle.

Love was the main beneficiary, whether catching the ball in his preferred area in the left mid-post or simply spotting up in space on the wing after James and Irving collapsed the defense. He chipped in on the offensive glass, too, wresting a rebound from the arms of Manu Ginobili and finding Tristan Thompson for a second-quarter dunk. Love ended up with 21 points and 11 rebounds, finishing just his third stretch as a Cavalier with three straight 20-point efforts, and looking like a guy worth dealing two No. 1 picks for (even if one was Anthony Bennett). The Cavs are now 13–2 when he hits that mark.

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Is Love still a liability on defense? Yes, and intelligent teams with the personnel to go small can still expose him. The Warriors have figured out that secret, as we’ve all seen. The Spurs’ preference for dual-big lineups (and generally more plodding posts) can make him easier to hide, although it mattered little the first time they met. Will he still come up in trade rumors, even if David Griffin insists otherwise? Likely. But finding Love a level of comfort remains a prerogative, and perhaps the key to unlocking the rest of the offense. The issues aren’t fixed, but at the very least, games like Saturday tell you exactly why it’s so pressing for Cleveland to figure it all out.

Three Thoughts

• We’ve come a long way without mentioning a forceful showing from James, who finished with 29 points on 17 shots and a 16-point third quarter that helped Cleveland hold a double-digit lead. But his biggest impact may have come in the first quarter. James took just three shots and scored only two points, but delivered five of his seven assists, committed no turnovers and ensured his teammates were involved. ​

Love wasn’t the only one thriving off James’s unselfishness, with J.R. Smith knocking down some shots early and the Cavs as a whole moving the ball and capitalizing. Irving finished with 21 points, getting his turn with a 10-point fourth quarter. The stars all contributed, the effort never let up, and 67 points in a half against the vaunted Spurs defense was a season best—and worst for the two sides. The Cavaliers’ leader set the tone, and it rubbed off ... Smith even made an extra pass in the third quarter. 

•  Even after this week’s drubbing at the hands of the Warriors, this loss was less an indictment of the Spurs than it was a highly decisive outing from their opponents. San Antonio allowed its second-most points all season after Golden State beat it down for 120 earlier this week. But Cleveland shot nearly 55%, and the consistency of its makes spoke louder than any defensive scrambling from its opponents. It’s worth noting that LaMarcus Aldridge, who, sans Tim Duncan, is the Spurs’ tallest rim defender not named Boban, sat the entire second quarter due to foul trouble. If you watch closely, he’s been a little better on defense than his reputation suggested when he arrived in San Antonio.

The Spurs did struggle with dribble penetration and drive-and-kicks, but the simple fact that Gregg Popovich felt comfortable playing around with his lineups a bit against a potential Finals opponent delineated the difference in pressure here. Cleveland had something to prove, San Antonio really didn’t, and until the Spurs start allowing triple digits at home against middling opposition, we shouldn’t be too up in arms. 

• Here’s Cleveland’s schedule going into the All-Star break: at Indiana, at Charlotte, vs. Boston, vs. New Orleans (back to back), vs. Sacramento, vs. the L.A. Lakers. If that stretch doesn’t boost this team’s confidence or turn out consistent results, Griffin has one week from the Lakers game until the trade deadline to get busy. And though Love may not be headed anywhere, the Cavs have a surplus of high-priced big men and a definite need for a defensive presence and shooting on the wing. After what the Warriors have done to them, and twice at that, it would be remiss to think they won’t aggressively explore their options.