By Tom Withers
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND — Kevin Love smiled as he walked onto the court, sharing a handshake and laugh with teammate Jordan McRae. Love then worked on his drop-step, dunked, fired up a few outside shots and practiced free throws.
Outwardly relaxed, he desperately wanted to do more.
After missing Game 3 of the NBA Finals with a concussion, Love, who watched last year’s finals with his left arm in a sling following shoulder surgery, moved a step closer to playing again.
The question now is: Does Cleveland need him?
With LeBron James and Kyrie Irving leading the way, the Cavaliers cruised to a 120-90 win over the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night while Love stayed in the locker room watching on TV and wondering if he would play again. And now that the Cavs have clawed their way back into the series without Love, coach Tyronn Lue faces a dilemma as he prepares for Game 4 on Friday, when Cleveland can try to pull even at 2-2.
The Cavs barely missed Love in Game 3 as reserve Richard Jefferson provided a spark, James flourished at both ends and Cleveland played with a defensive intensity that inexplicably isn’t always present.
Love still must be cleared by doctors before he can play, giving Lue time to decide whether to stick with Jefferson as a starter or return to the lineup that got the Cavs back in the finals.
“I haven’t thought about it yet,” said Lue, who undoubtedly has been playing out scenarios in his head. “Hopefully just trying to get Kevin healthy is the most important thing right now. He’s going through the concussion protocol, so hopefully we can get him back.”
Love’s resumption of non-contact basketball activities indicates progress in his recovery, and he will be evaluated again Friday morning to make sure he’s not experiencing any symptoms. If he’s cleared, Love will be available to the Cavs, who are feeling confident after snapping a seven-game losing streak against the Warriors.
“I know he’s eager to play, he wants to play, and we definitely need him back,” Lue said. “We miss his rebounding. We miss his post presence. We miss his three-point shooting. So we definitely want him back, but he has to take the steps necessary to get himself back.”
In Love’s absence, the 35-year-old Jefferson contributed nine points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals in 33 minutes. While the Cavs were successful without Love, Jefferson is the first to acknowledge they’re better with him.
“Kevin is a big part of our team, one of the main reasons we’re here,” Jefferson said. “We look at this as a team. Kevin was the loudest supporter for us in that locker room. He means a lot to us. I don’t know what coach Lue is going to go with, but Kevin is our guy and we’re going to stick by him.”
Love suffered his head injury in Game 2 when he took a forearm to the back of the head from Warriors forward Harrison Barnes, an accidental blow that may have unintentionally turned the series. As his teammates prepared for Wednesday’s game, Love felt frustrated, alone. That’s when James and Irving rallied around the other member of Cleveland’s Big 3.
James read the anguish in Love’s face.
“It was that I-hate-that-I’m-going-through-this moment, I-feel-like-I’m-letting-you-guys-down moment without him actually even saying it,” James said. “So before we left the locker room, I know Kyrie embraced him, I did as well. Told him, don’t worry about it. We’ve got him. This is what a team is all about — for them to pick their brother up in a time of need.
“I know it was uplifting to him, and it was for our team as well.”
Irving can empathize with Love’s desire to play more than anyone. The guard’s first finals were ended last year by a shattered kneecap in Game 1, and he and Love were powerless to help James, who pushed the Warriors to six games on his own.
Irving sensed Love’s disappointment.
“I know he definitely wanted to play,” said Irving, who scored 30 points in Game 3. “Looking in his eyes, knowing in his heart, being at the Finals is what we’ve both dreamt of. Knowing the magnitude of the game and challenges that we face going into Game 3, we needed a full team effort, and he was there in spirit. We just knew that we had to take care of business for him, and we did that.
“We dedicated that game to him.”