The Warriors knew exactly which matchup they wanted, after Kyrie went Steph in Steph’s face to put the Cavaliers up three with less than a minute to play in last night’s mind-blowing Game 7. They didn’t call a timeout to talk about it. They didn’t give Tyronn Lue a chance to make a substitution. They wanted Kevin Love on the floor, guarding Steph, at the top of the key, all by himself.
The scoring numbers—nine points on a cruddy 3-for-9 shooting line, including 0-for-3 from three—don’t exactly melt your face, but Love had a terrific Game 7. At the end of a humbling series at the end of two mostly lost seasons in Cleveland, he finally seemed to rediscover the rebounding tenacity and sharp basketball mind that, just as much as his shooting range, once upon a time made him a rising star in the NBA. He crashed the glass like a demon at both ends (14 rebounds); he fired aggressive outlet passes that created a handful of mismatches and defensive fouls over the course of the game; and he worked his ass off on defense, which is about all anyone can ask of him in that regard.
Even so, the Warriors wanted him, and rightly. Whatever else may be good or bad about his game, Kevin Love’s cruel fate is to be a splendidly and multiply gifted pro basketball player the contours of whose abilities will always, always, henceforth unto the end of time, make him the guy you want switching onto your star scorer at the top of the key when you need a big bucket in a crucial situation. His feet are heavy and slow and his reflexes are not the quickest, but most importantly and cripplingly, he just kinda never has had the instincts or disposition for playing basketball way out there in space, where it can be played in all directions and at all speeds by improvisational geniuses with cruel imaginations. At that end of the floor, at least, Kevin Love is an old-fashioned power forward, now and forever a native of the paint.
And so. Only a touch less calmly than usual, Steph brought the ball up to the right wing; Andre Iguodala set a screen on LeBron to force Love to switch onto Draymond; Draymond set a screen on Kyrie; and there was Love, one-on-one with the best shooter in the history of basketball, 35 feet from the basket, with 45 seconds left to play in the 2015-16 season. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this was the biggest moment of Kevin Love’s basketball life.
And all he did was eat Steph Curry alive.
Look at him go! All Steph’s hesitation dribbles and head fakes; all the shifts of weight that send hapless, panicked defenders leaping and lunging out of position in moments a millionth as fraught as this one, opening themselves up to be blown by, or stepped around, or baited into shooting fouls ... and here’s Kevin Love—Kevin fucking Love!—weight beneath him, feet on the floor, hands up, rotating his hips and closing the gaps and contesting without lunging. Going for it, man. For 14 or so of the most harrowing seconds in the history of basketball or television or sports or seconds, battling like hell against everything that is true about himself and about Steph Curry, and hanging in there just long enough to force what amounted to a punt.
Listen. I don’t particularly care about Kevin Love. But damn if I didn’t choke up a little at the sight of this harried, humbled doofus, this neurotic basketcase whose game some idiot described as “the basketball equivalent of a just-adopted shelter dog” not three weeks ago, finding, somehow, the wherewithal to put the clamps on Steph fucking Curry in the biggest basketball moment of his entire goddamn life. At their best, the thrill of sports is seeing humans exceed themselves; for those 14 seconds, last night, Kevin Love stepped out of all the limitations and baggage of Kevin Love and became what his teammates needed him to be, against all sense and reason, in the exact and only and last moment he possibly could. He came through.
The temptation is to say that Kevin Love gave it all he had, but that doesn’t go far enough: He gave it far more than he had. Where did he get it? Who knows. He couldn’t stop Steph one-on-one. Not in a million billion eons. He still can’t. He only did.