By Tom Withers
AP Sports Writer
INDEPENDENCE — When the so-far-perfect Cavaliers held on in Game 4 and finished their sweep of overmatched Atlanta, LeBron James threw both arms around Kevin Love and hugged his teammate tightly, appearing almost afraid to let him go.
James knows he can’t lose Love again.
One year after Love’s first playoff appearance ended with a dislocated left shoulder, an injury that wrecked Cleveland’s chances of winning an NBA title, the versatile big man is playing at an All-Star level and perhaps the biggest reason the Cavs are 8-0 in the postseason.
Through two rounds, Love is averaging 18.9 points, 12.5 rebounds and shooting 44 percent (28 of 63) on 3-pointers. The Cavs, who knocked down a league-record 25 3s in one game and 77 in their series against the Hawks, are outgunning everyone including trigger-happy Golden State in these playoffs.
“Kev is just being Kev,” explained James, whose on-court relationship with Love has been analyzed for two seasons. “He’s a workhorse, a guy who is giving us 19 and 12 in the postseason and has eight straight double-doubles. No, he’s not the Kev in Minnesota. He’s the Kev in Cleveland.”
For Love, now 12-0 in the playoffs, the comeback has been a year in the making.
After six sometimes-miserable seasons with the Timberwolves, Love finally got into the playoffs last spring only to have his debut end horribly when Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk yanked his shoulder from the socket. Love had surgery and spent the remainder of the playoffs in a sling, sitting helplessly on Cleveland’s bench, the pain of not playing as searing as his injury.
Looking back, Love feels the hurt helped him heal.
“There’s something to be said for being able to sit there and watch and be hungry,” he said Wednesday as the Cavs returned to practice while awaiting an opponent in the Eastern Conference finals. “I think last year kind of helped me, getting a little taste in the playoffs and then having it taken away from me.”
James, too, believes Love’s injury inspired him.
“He was starting to get his groove and that’s what (ticked) him off more than anything when he got injured,” said the four-time MVP. “He was finally starting to get a rhythm of what he needed to do to help our team win — and what I wanted out of him and what he wanted out of me. That’s why he took it to heart more than anyone.”
Love has become an invaluable weapon for the Cavs and coach Tyronn Lue, who has been waiting for the 27-year-old to bust out. Love’s size and athleticism give Cleveland numerous offensive options. He can post up, plant himself on the 3-point line to await passes from a driving James or Kyrie Irving or come to the top of the key and set screens, creating mismatches and headaches for defenses.
It’s taken some time, but Love is now playing the way the Cavs envisioned when they acquired him in a blockbuster trade shortly after James returned to Cleveland in the summer of 2014.
Lue’s pep talk to Love in March seemed to help. Following a loss to Brooklyn, Lue pulled Love aside, and using some choice words, demanded that he be more aggressive. Love has been a different player since, the one Cleveland signed to a five-year, $113 million contract in July, the guy the Cavs have needed.
“The one we all hoped we’d see,” Lue said. “Kevin is a great player, I believe a Top 10 player in this league and he knows it. When you have a team with three All-Stars, sometimes you don’t get to play the role you’re capable of playing. That’s what’s been hurting Kevin over this last year and a half, but now we’re using him the right way, he’s comfortable and things are great.”
All that talk about Love not being connected with James and others seems silly now, but it was real. His laid-back personality was out of step and there were times when Cleveland’s Big 3 experiment appeared doomed.
But as Love sat at the dais alongside James and Irving on Sunday in Atlanta, there was only harmony. The trio laughed and joked after Love was asked if he has broken out of his shell. Love then mentioned he wanted to get home so he could watch “Game of Thrones,” the wildly popular HBO series.
“Jon Snow is back,” he said, referring to a fictional character who rose from the dead.
Love can relate.