The Cleveland Cavaliers opened the Eastern Conference Finals in Boston on Wednesday with another resounding victory, scoring 61 points in the first half, leading by 22 points after two quarters before coasting to a 117-104 win over the Celtics. It was their ninth consecutive victory to start these playoffs, their 12th playoff win in a row dating back to last season -- the longest postseason win streak since the 2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers -- and the 29th consecutive playoff series in which LeBron James has won a road game. That's also a 16-3 record on the road for the Cavs in the playoffs over the past three seasons.
LeBron delivered another masterpiece -- even if he said in a post-game interview afterwards that he didn't feel great after a week and a half layoff in-between series -- as he scored 38 points, grabbed nine rebounds and handed out seven assists, sizing up individual Celtics defenders for easy baskets throughout.
It seems that Cleveland and Golden State are on a collision course. A combined 19-0 in the postseason so far, it's the first time in NBA playoff history two teams have started 9-0 or better together. The Cavs have LeBron, and he's been dominant in these playoffs, perhaps the greatest postseason in his career especially if he can win his fourth championship against a formidable Warriors team. To beat Golden State four times in a seven game series, the Cavs will need more than just their best player, though.
Enter Kevin Love.
In the playoffs, Love is averaging 15.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from three. The numbers are not disappointing, and the Cavs swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, but before the start of the conference finals, head coach Tyronn Lue talked about featuring Love in the offense more against Boston. "Some of it is my fault because we haven't really featured him in a lot because of the matchups we had on other teams," Lue said last week. "[Love] has been great. His whole mindset is winning and that's what it's all about the playoffs. In this next series, we have some matchups he can definitely take advantage of and it's on me to make sure we do that."
That mission was accomplished in Game 1. Love was showcased in Cleveland's offense and scored 32 points with 12 rebounds in 34 minutes, hitting six threes. It was the best game of the 2016-17 playoffs so far for Love, who scored 12 points in four games against Toronto in the second round and score in double digits just twice. He was also the first Cavalier outside of LeBron to score 30 points and grab 10 rebounds in a playoff game since Brad Daugherty in 1992. The performance has to be encouraging for the Cavs, who will need to figure out how to maximize Love's minutes on the floor if they advance.
A year ago in the Finals, before the 3-1 comeback, before Love's Game 7 defense on Stephen Curry in the final minute, the Cavs power forward was almost unplayable against Golden State's small-ball lineups. Cleveland's lone win in the first four games of the Finals was one in which Love didn't play when he sat because of a concussion. Love only played 25 minutes in a Game 4 loss, scored just two points in Cleveland's Game 5 win, and played 12 minutes in the team's Game 6 win. Love was a non-factor in the series. But LeBron and Kyrie Irving carried the Cavs to the victory, his team won the championship, Love has his signature moment against Curry, so all of that and the talk of Love's fit alongside LeBron has receded into the background.
But when the Cavs and Warriors presumably meet in the Finals, Love's role will be a major talking point once again. Despite winning last season, Lue probably can't wait to figure out what to do with Love against this Golden State team. With Kevin Durant, the Warriors can unleash a five-man lineup of Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, which could expose Love's defense on switches. In that scenario, Love could see his minutes come down in the Finals again, and it is imperative for Cleveland to make him a priority on offense when he is on the floor.
The Cavs know for what they're preparing. There's a showdown with the Warriors coming, and figuring out how to unleash Love on offense is one step toward a successful defense of their championship in the Finals. Before the series, Love was asked about Lue's comments on his offensive involvement. "I told him, 'We're 8-0. I don't mind it,'" Love said. "If I get five or six shots, if I get 15 shots, it don't matter to me, as long as we win. I've been in this position before, we're having success so I'm happy. Feel good."
The Cavs will need Love to continue peaking before the Finals begin. Wednesday's performance was a step in the right direction.