Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
King of the Court: Kevin Love
Did you ever think Kevin Love would be an All-Star again? He made three previous All-Star appearances as a member of the Timberwolves, and started for the Western Conference in 2014. But ever since his arrival in Cleveland, the idea of Love as a star, never mind an All-Star, has faded. While Chris Bosh, through his evident selflessness and effervescent personality, was able to ride playing as the third banana in the Big Three to stardom, Love has never worn the supporting-actor-to-LeBron role well. Until the Switch.
There were three iconic plays in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals — the Block, the Shot, and the Switch. The Block made LeBron a god, the Shot made Kyrie a star, and the Switch will be remembered for that time Kevin Love played defense. It’s underhanded praise, sure, but the ripple effect from that bit of effort and tenacity (and maybe luck) was as big as those from the other plays. Cleveland won a title, Kevin Love was a champion, and everything the Cavs had done to get to that point — and every sacrifice Love had made to be there — was all worth it.
But would the Switch be Kevin Love’s version of Bosh’s incredible hustle-play pass to Ray Allen in Heat-Spurs Game 6 of the 2013 Finals?
A hugely important moment that symbolized the sacrifices made by a once-go-to player? Or would Love reemerge as a potent force in his own right?
With the weight of the city, the franchise, the rumor mill, Instagram, and, maybe most importantly, LeBron off of his shoulders, Love is now like a reunited band playing its greatest hits: The good stuff is there, the bad stuff is hidden, the highs might not be as high as they were in Minny, but who cares when there’s a ring? There are second acts in American basketball.
Maybe you didn’t notice? It’s been a long December, so it was easy to get distracted on Tuesday night by the coaching homecomings (Thibs in Chicago, Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix), the near-Cinderella story in New Orleans, the Hair Bowl happening in Atlanta (Mike Muscala’s man bun, Dennis Schroder’s Flex Gang blond streak, and Elfrid Payton’s Elfrid Payton was a lot to process), or your favorite New Yorker’s favorite Latvian shoving Marquese Chriss like the Suns rookie had stolen his maizes zupa.
You might have missed out on a masterful basketball game played by Kevin Love in Cleveland against Memphis.
Love’s current game — a sublime combo of on-the-block bully ball, long-range shooting, and periscope-up passing — is easy to overlook. We’re not in Minnesota anymore, and gone are the days of 40–20 — as is the need for him to put up those kinds of numbers. In a season in which every night brings another absurd individual stat line, it’s hard to appreciate Love’s consistency, but it’s worth noting the recent uptick in his play.
In the Cavs’ 103–86 victory over the until-then-streaking Grizz, Love had 29 points, 13 boards, three assists, and two steals. It was his 15th double-double of the season, and his fifth straight game with 20 or more points — all five of which Cleveland has won.
Love mixed up his attack with top-of-the-key 3s and Zach Randolph wrestling matches down low. But beyond the stats, what’s really pleasing is the basketball relationship he has with Bron. While the 2015 Finals showed that LeBron actually can almost win a title by himself, the 2016 Finals and 2016–17 season have shown that LeBron is at his best when he’s playing in the flow and sharing with his teammates. He’s not Kobe; there’s nothing interesting about LeBron shunning the other guys on the court — he’s too good at passing for us to accept that.
I look forward to seeing this play itself out on the court in New Orleans, come February. Love deserves it.
Runner-up: Eric Bledsoe
I hate to say this, but: Enjoy this Bledsoe run while it lasts. The Phoenix Suns guard has had three straight games with 30 or more, and last night he dropped 31 in Phoenix’s 113–111 overtime win over New York. His history of injuries suggests that he plays one full season, and then sits out most of the next one with some unfortunate knee thing. By that admittedly unscientific reasoning, we’re about to get a full slate of Bledsoe games, and against the Knicks we saw why that’s such a great thing. Dude is a runaway bowling ball, capable of blocking a Kristaps shot, feasting at the nail, running beautiful two-man stuff with Tyson Chandler, and finishing in transition like he was in an empty gym. Long may he run.