<
>

To win a title, the Cavs need to get Kevin Love more involved

play
LeBron on loss: 'Good old-fashioned A-kicking' (0:44)

LeBron James discusses the Warriors' dominant win over the Cavaliers, praising the performances of Draymond Green and Stephen Curry. (0:44)

It is a tried-and-true NBA axiom that it's foolhardy to overreact to single games during the regular season. Anyone who has been around the league for more than a couple of campaigns can tick off myriad examples.

So the absolute destruction the Golden State Warriors put on the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this week doesn't grant the winner or the loser anything tangible in the long term. However, the results of their games with the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs in the past last week did seem to send the Cavs a rather glaring mandate.

They have three months, almost exactly half the season, to figure out how to activate Kevin Love. This is a direct challenge to coach David Blatt, team leaders and ball handers LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and, of course, to Love himself.

If the Cavs don't solve the Love riddle, their chances of ultimate victory are reduced to unacceptable margins, especially for a team with a payroll of nearly $110 million. This is not controversial, it's elementary: Blatt's job is on the line, he has to figure it out and then sell it to his other stars.

There are multifaceted challenges, as there are for every team looking to get the gold trophy. But in the Cavs' case they seem to be manifesting themselves in the handling of their power forward. They are leaving some of their strength on the table and it has become obvious they can't afford to.

Love was the worst combination in the two losses -- a hole at the defensive end and an also-ran at the offensive end. In these high-profile games -- and the Christmas Day loss to the Warriors can be included -- Love has turned into a stain on the scouting report. The opposition attacks him when they have the ball and ignores him when they don't, treating him as if he were a replacement-level player.

If you want the basic stats, though they hardly tell the whole story, here they are: In the three games against the Warriors and Spurs, Love is shooting 10-of-31 overall and 3-for-12 on 3-pointers for a total of 23 points. But these numbers, while anemic, say very little.

The film is much more revealing as Love has constantly been attacked in pick-and-roll, driven on and back cut. There have been times when the system the Cavs play lets him down and there have been times when he's in the right spot at the right time and makes admirable effort. But the truth is he has been a victim.

This is not a surprise because Love is not a good defensive player. He doesn't move well laterally, doesn't jump well and after reforming his body to be leaner, often can be muscled out of position. He will be attacked on defense for the rest of his career. Draymond Green, the Warriors' Swiss Army knife forward, will probably have success against him in head-to-head situations for the foreseeable future.

The reason the Cavs gave him $110 million was not for this, but because as a rebounder, passer and shooter, Love is world class at his position. The idea is the Cavs will use these strengths and mitigate the weaknesses -- the foundational deal for many a Hall of Famer. If the team can't find a way to weaponize what Love does best in the chips-are-down games, Blatt might as well just bench him.

So there is the issue: the Cavs are not using Love's strengths. They run almost nothing for him. Rival coaches, scouts and former teammates curiously ask: "Why don't they give Kevin the ball on the elbow like they used to in Minnesota?" or "Why don't they run twice as many pick-and-pops for him so he can get more of his shots?" or "Why do they just let Kevin stand in the corner?"

Maybe these are the wrong questions. None of these people, not the media and nor the fans, are in the practices, in the huddles or are aware of the dynamic. So perhaps it is too simplistic to just give Love the ball a handful of times a game on the elbow where he can dribble, pass or shoot in the manner that forces a defense to plan and open other options.

You want a referendum on what the rest of the league thinks about what is going on with Love? Well, it's coming as the coaches vote for All-Stars. The Cavs have the best record in the East and Blatt is likely going to be the exhibition's coach but it's doubtful Love gets a spot on the team. And he made it three times in the West when he played on a miserable team with heavy competition at his position.

This team has been built on the premise of three stars sharing the load and distributing the attention. Forget the trade they made to get Love or the money they're paying him. If the Cavs don't operate by using their stars efficiently, the concept of beating an elite opponent four times becomes too complex and too reliant on outlier outcomes.

Of course this requires the combination of Blatt's design, James and Irving buying in and Love's execution and, if it isn't happening enough, his voice to call for it.

Love's personality doesn't appear to help him in this fight. His response to on-court adversity often is to drop his head, with the apparent hope he will avert attention.

Whether it is true or not, he sometimes comes off looking as if he's pouting. If he's fighting behind the scenes to be given different chances, it's not getting him anywhere. If he's not fighting, the question should be: "Why not?"

Earlier in James' career, when he was frustrated about a play or player, he would routinely look over to the bench and the coaching staff. It was as if he was looking to the teacher to reprimand a student. In recent years, James will often bypass this and take matters into his own hands. He will yell or just glare at a teammate, justified or not. Love has learned this and sometimes when there's a mix-up, James will glare his way and Love will stare at the hardwood so as not to meet James' eyes.

Make whatever psychological assumption you want, but if Love has been developing a rapport with James, it has been hard to see it when the Cavs are under duress. And if the team makes it back to the Finals, it will be in duress from the moment Game 1 tips off. In the end, this matters so much more than photos on social media or passive-aggressive commentary to the media.

The latter was going on again after Monday's loss to the Warriors, when James made a veiled reference to both Irving and Love.

"We've got some inexperienced guys that haven't played enough meaningful basketball games where they can fall back on," James said. "When it gets a little tough sometimes, it's not like they can kind of fall back on previous experiences to try and help them get through it."

Love did his own little dance, offering up: "We have a lot of things to get better at. That's going to take a lot of guys looking themselves in the mirror and it all starts with our leader over there and dwindles on down."

Parse that however you'd like, but ultimately all that matters is what happens on the court. Just as James' semi-humorous comment about Love being the "focal point" of the offense in the first week of the season, these lip service moments mean nothing. Who cares what Stephen Curry wants the locker room to smell like or who was Photoshopped into what Instagram post? Let the social media managers handle that stuff. Someone with six or seven zeros on their check had better start handling the truly important things.

The Cavs are getting handled by their legitimate competition and it isn't because that competition has more talent, as all of those teams at the top are loaded with enough to win it all. The Warriors and Spurs, the two teams setting the standard, are playing better together. For that matter, so are some of the challengers currently behind Cleveland.

Considering where the Cavs are in the standings and what they have on the roster, what their final record is or their seed or their opponent in the Eastern Conference playoffs may matter as much as this. Beating the Warriors and Spurs is going to take greatness, and without Love's contributions, the Cavs are going to have a hard time getting there.