In Kevin Love, the Cavaliers have an incomplete player who is very good at the things he does well, and a liability in the things he doesn’t. Trailing in the fourth quarter, and so perhaps out of desperation, Tyronn Lue and the Cavs switched to a risky gameplan that paid off with a win, and a somewhat counterintuitive one: a small-ball lineup with Kevin Love at center, where the offense ran through him. The Pistons just couldn’t stop it.
After switching to Love at the 5 with 11:03 left and a seven-point deficit, Cleveland went on a 30-18 run to close the game and a 106-101 win to take the first game of the series. And while it was Kyrie Irving pacing the Cavs in scoring, all anyone could talk about was the effectiveness of Love, playing his first postseason game since dislocating his shoulder in the first round last season.
“Kevin at the 5 is tough for them to try to defend,” Lue said. “That play, I think we manufactured probably 10 points in a row just running that play alone. It was a big play for us and putting Kevin at the 5 was a big adjustment for us.”
The Cavaliers repeatedly ran a set called “Elbow Wedge Short,” a double pick designed to get Love the ball in the high post, and its most immediate and obvious advantage was drawing Andre Drummond out to guard him. Drummond is one of the NBA’s best rim defenders, and the combination of forcing him to desert his office near the hoop and the defensive confusion caused by the picks gave Irving and LeBron James a ton of space to go to the basket.
With no Drummond in the paint, Irving and James had more room than they had all game. If their paths were blocked, if the Pistons collapsed to defend the drive (something they hadn’t needed to do when Drummond was in place), they kicked it out to the likes of Love or Richard Jefferson or Matthew Dellavedova on the outside, all of whom hit big shots down the stretch.
Love’s perimeter shooting is his unique strength, and it’s what forced Drummond or Aron Baynes (or Marcus Morris, before the switch to center) to keep him honest rather than dare him to fight his way to the basket, which is just something he’s not strong enough to do. Fully half of Love’s points from the field came from three.
Cleveland went on a 7-0 run to tie the game immediately after Lue took Tristan Thompson out of the game and Love switched to center, and took the lead for good less than three minutes after the timeout.
Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who spoke before the series about not wanting to get sucked into exactly this small-ball matchup, bemoaned how running playing through Love at the elbow took Drummond out of the picture.
“He spreads floor out and it makes it tough in pick and rolls for your 5s to get out there,” Van Gundy said of Cleveland’s lineup. “We’ve got the best rebounder in the league [in Drummond] and we’re playing him from 25 feet. We knew it was coming. It was something we worked on yesterday. Obviously, not well enough.”
This strategy isn’t foolproof going forward, even if the Pistons don’t make defensive adjustments. Putting Love at center over Thompson opens the Cavs up to a huge mismatch on the other end: Love can’t guard Drummond. What worked to an extent for the Cavs yesterday was clogging the paint to take away Detroit’s favored pick-and-roll with Drummond and Reggie Jackson. That necessarily handed the Pistons the perimeter, and early in the game, they took advantage, going 10-for-16 from three in the first half. But Detroit isn’t a great three-shooting team, and in the second half—especially in the fourth quarter, with Cleveland packing the paint to aid Love—the Pistons started bricking more in line with their season percentages.
Lue made it sound like the Cavaliers intend to break out the small-ball lineup a lot going forward, and unless the Pistons prove they can stop it, why wouldn’t he? Detroit can mitigate its effectiveness by better defending the pick-and-roll, or make it unpalatable by hitting their own shots on the other end, but until that happens, Kevin Love is at times the single most valuable Cav. What a difference a year makes.