The Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Detroit Pistons 106-101 in Game 1 of the playoffs on Sunday.
While it was a close contest throughout, as the Pistons match up well with the Cavaliers, the Cavs may have found the antidote: Kevin Love.
In Love’s first playoff game since separating his shoulder in the first round of last year’s playoffs, he scored 28 points on 10-22 shooting, 4-8 from three, with 13 rebounds.
While Love has at times languished in the Cavs’ offence, and he had one of his least efficient shooting seasons of his career this season, the Cavs seemed to prioritise utilising him in Game 1. In particular, Love played center down the stretch of the game, which neutralized the Pistons who couldn’t find ways to match up.
The Cavaliers have been tentative to use Love as a center, or “five,” this season. Assistant coach Jim Boylan told ESPN’s Zach Lowe in March, “Kevin at center just hasn’t been effective for us.” Though Love can space the floor, his defence on centres is questionable. During the regular season, the Cavs’ most-used lineup with Love at center was actually outscored by 2.5 points per 100 possessions.
But against the Pistons, it may be the perfect matchup. Playing Love at the five drags Pistons center Andre Drummond, the NBA’s leading rebounder, out of the paint to guard the three-point line. With Love at center, the Cavaliers’ feasted on offence, as they spread the court.
Drummond stayed back back to deny Irving’s penetration, and Love had plenty of daylight.
Here, Love rolling to the basket forced the Pistons’ defence to collapse, and he found Richard Jefferson for a wide open corner three:
On this gorgeous sequence, in which the Cavs’ offence seemingly morphed into the Warriors, the spacing allowed the Cavs to ping the ball around until Matthew Dellavedova had an open shot. This doesn’t happen if Tristan Thompson or Timofey Mozgov is permanently camped in the paint:
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said after the game, “Kevin at the 5 is tough for them to try to defend. Putting Kevin at the 5 was a big adjustment for us. I just think when we put Kevin at the 5, just think he’s a tough cover when he is picking and popping.”
Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy admitted the challenges, saying, “He spreads floor out and it makes it tough in pick and rolls for your 5s to get out there. We’ve got the best rebounder in the league and we’re playing him from 25 feet. We knew it was coming. It was something we worked on yesterday. Obviously, not well enough.”
Given Love’s defensive limitations, it will be interesting to see how the Pistons respond to putting Love at the five and forcing him to defend. Nonetheless, Detroit’s options after Drummond are considerably less attractive, and if the Cavs force the Pistons to take perhaps their best player off the floor, it’s a huge win for Cleveland.
The Cavs finding total offensive harmony was always going to require sacrifice. Love has seemingly given up parts of his game to fit in, but he’s proving that when the Cavs utilise him as a primary option, he’s a devastating weapon that should scare the NBA.