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Congrats to Kevin Love for Surviving the NBA Center Gantlet

One of the keys to Cleveland righting the ship has been its big man’s willingness to bang bodies with some of the best centers the league has to offer

Timofey Mozgov and Kevin Love battle for the ball Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Putting an undersized, out-of-position Kevin Love against Andre Drummond should have given the Pistons the upper (and much larger) hand on Monday. It was a one-on-one matchup-maker’s exploitation dream. But Drummond ended with just eight points and eight boards (his lowest rebound haul of the season), and Love sat after 26 minutes, resting happily with 19 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists in a 116–88 Cavs win.

Making Love a center was a safer experiment at the start of the season. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue needed to open up the floor with a shooter. Room had to be made for LeBron, Jae Crowder, and Love together—the latest edition of the never-ending whiteboard gymnastics to find Love’s role on the team. Tristan Thompson, demoted to the bench, could always come back. (He did, four games into that lineup tryout.) They lost one of the three games, and, in the fourth, Love, who was never a rim-protecting stopper anyway, was relieved of his duties at the 5.

Just five games after rejoining the starting lineup, Thompson limped off the court while leaning on J.R. Smith after suffering a left-calf injury that will sideline him for a month. Thompson was the newest cavity in Cleveland’s already-hollow bench, and Love was called back into duty to play center.

The Cavaliers’ last week of games, against the Hornets, Clippers, and Pistons, was not an egregiously difficult slate. But for Love, it was a gantlet. We don’t tend to think of individual matchups outside the context of two superior players at their position: Westbrook vs. Harden, LeBron vs. Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Anthony Davis. These are one-off clashes. But while Love’s team dispatched the opposition, he, at least in theory, faced night after night of tough competition.

Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, and Drummond are all traditional 5s—all massive, all basketball bullies. Love’s defensive vulnerability is usually exacerbated against this type of player; he doesn’t have the reach or the motor to keep up. Love might have an advantage against the biggest big men on the perimeter, but Cleveland’s league-worst defense would only suffer without a viable last line at the rim.

Howard, who racked up fouls early (two drawn by Love), didn’t get much time to inflict that punishment on offense. In 23 minutes, he was limited to eight points and five rebounds. Jordan, on the other hand, worked the opportunity and the glass into 22 rebounds and 20 points. But neither was able to stop Love. DAJ struggled closing out Love’s 3s (including two that Love hit in overtime), naturally. Jordan was also caught in the paint on multiple occasions, either not ready to switch on him in sets, or a step behind when Love glided through in transition.

With less than a minute left in regulation against the Clippers, Love grabbed the rebound (which, to be fair, fell kindly toward him) with Jordan standing next to him under the basket and tossed it out to LeBron, who hit a game-tying 3-pointer.

Sure, Dwight is already a period piece, and Jordan’s Clippers have their check-engine light on, but the two big men still have seven All-Defensive team selections and three Defensive Player of the Year nods between them. And height. And health. Love put up six more points against them than his season average.

The Pistons didn’t task Drummond with defending Love, hoping Tobias Harris and Anthony Tolliver would be better equipped to handle his shooting. Love used his size against them, working back-to-the-basket so effectively that Drummond had to be switched back onto him in the second half, creating an opening for Love the Distributer and Love the Outside Shooter. It was Lue’s original dream at the start of the season — making teams pick their Kevin Love poison — fully realized.

Love might be marking the days until Thompson returns and he can go back to patrolling the perimeter, but the Cavs depended on the contributions he’s made at the center position. Frequent injuries — Cleveland’s speciality — limit available rotations and also offensive stability.

“I don’t want to say [I am] out of position,” Love said before the Detroit contest, “but those are big boys and I have to make sure I’m well fed and rested.”

Surviving the NBA-center gantlet was a task forced on him, but out of his comfort zone. With Cleveland out of options, Love became one of the Cavs’ most reliable options.