'Old Man' Love relishing reserve role with rising Cavaliers
CLEVELAND (AP) — Kevin Love bolted from his seat, a spot on the bench that has revived his career and helped fuel the Cavaliers' stunning rise, and streaked past coach J.B. Bickerstaff standing near the scorer's table.
Stopping near midcourt, Love screamed and pointed toward teammate Dean Wade, another of Cleveland's reserves, who nailed a 3-pointer to push the Cavs back in front of the New York Knicks.
Once an All-Star, Love's now a $30 million-per-year role player relishing his new niche.
The 33-year-old, slowed by injuries and self-inflicted drama the past few seasons, is having the time of his basketball life with the young Cavs, a 22-win team last season and now a legitimate threat to win the Eastern Conference.
Trade rumors about Love have gone silent. The on-court temper tantrum in Toronto last year has been forgiven, if not forgotten. Cleveland fans don't grumble as much about his massive contract.
Love's in a positive place emotionally after being so open about his struggles with mental health.
“The world that we live in now people tend to have quick memories," Love said with a smile after scoring 20 points in 24 minutes as Cleveland beat New York and moved 10 games over .500. "I’m thankful for that. ... Winning changes a lot.”
However, it's deeper than that.
Love's willingness to accept coming off the bench this season so rookie forward Evan Mobley could develop has had a trickle-down effect.
The selfless move, perhaps partially rooted in him wanting to make himself appealing for a trade, has helped galvanize the Cavs.
“He made the ultimate sacrifice of basketball, probably a first-ballot Hall of Famer, to basically pass the torch to a rookie,” Bickerstaff said before Monday’s win over the Knicks. "“That’s not easy to do. Not only did he do it, he did it without hangover.
"He didn’t hold onto it the next day or the next weeks and walk around pouting and be an energy vampire. He accepted the role and then tried to be the best at it, tried to help the team as best he possibly could. To me, those are the guys that deserve all of our respect because it’s not easy.
"We see guys go out fighting all the way. For him to do that and contribute to the team and try to help the young guys, that’s giving back to the game and that’s what this game is about.”
Mobley said Love's acceptance changed the Cavs.
“It's had a huge impact, just him being bought in,” said the 20-year-old and Rookie of the Year frontrunner. "Everyone's all on the same page. We all know what we're supposed to do, so I feel like him doing that helped the team a lot."
Love's got his game back on track as well.
He's averaging 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds in a career-low 21.4 minutes. The Cavs' preseason plan was to reduce Love's workload to try to keep him healthier, and to this point it has gone perfectly.
Because of Love's ability as an outside shooter, Bickerstaff uses him to spread defenses and create more driving opportunities for others. And, if the Cavs need points, Love can deliver those too.
With the Cavs in a third-quarter funk against the Knicks, Love knocked down four 3-pointers in the third quarter — three in 67 seconds — to help Cleveland open an 11-point lead.
The flurry forced New York to call a timeout, and Cleveland's crowd erupted to salute the rejuvenated Love, who later said the moment reminded him of the Cavs' four-year run to the Finals from 2015-18.
“It was huge for us,” Wade said of Love's lift. “Everyone loves Kevin Love. It feels like once a game he goes on those little runs by himself. It just gives us so much energy."
Cleveland fans are falling for these Cavs, whose embrace of a team-first attitude and obvious chemistry on and off the floor has driven their rise in the standings.
And even though his young teammates playfully call him ‘Old Man’ or ‘Uncle Kevin,’ Love's enjoying the ride.
“We may be the ultimate share-the-wealth team,” Love said. “That’s beautiful. We really pay it forward for the next guy. We trust the extra pass. We trust guys to make the right plays out there and understand that they have great intention in everything that they do and we do.
"That allows guys to play free."
It's easy to see Love's renewed joy, whether he's hugging guard Darius Garland or delivering a flying chest bump after a big basket.
“For him to be back and feel like he’s a part of something greater than himself, that’s why we do what we do,” said Bickerstaff, who has known Love since his rookie season with Minnesota 13 years ago. "For him to be able to showcase that with all the things that he’s been through recently, you love and respect that.”
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