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Explain One Play: Kevin Durant picks on Kevin Love

Kevin Durant gets lots of layups against Kevin Love in Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals between the Warriors and Cavaliers.

2017 NBA Finals - Game One
you give love a bad name
Photo by Kyle Terada/Pool/Getty Images

In Game 1, which Cleveland Cavalier had by far the best Defensive Rating? Another clue: this player also was ranked this year as the #12 defender out of 93 players at his position.

Okay, you probably guessed from the title, but it’s Kevin Love. He’s always gotten a bit of a bad rap for his defense, perhaps due to stereotypes about large sluggish Caucasians. A couple of years ago, our own Nate Parham wrote a nice analysis of Kevin Love’s defense.

A more subtle scouting report would be that Love is a decent defender when posted up, but vulnerable when guarding drivers in space. And in Game 1, the Warriors, like a dog with its favorite chew toy, obsessively attacked Love.

The Cavs know the Warriors (and everyone else) targets Love, so they often try to hide him by having him guarding Draymond Green (who is not a driving threat) or anyone weaker offensively. The simple counter is for the Warriors to use whomever Love is guarding as a screener.

Let’s look at a fun sequence of plays from the second quarter which illustrates these themes.

Q2.5:13. GSW 45, CLE 39

This play begins with a bit of a mush because Draymond Green is trailing the play while Stephen Curry gets a screen from Kevin Durant. Durant, as he usually does, slips the screen quickly and will get an angle to drive past Iman Shumpert and attack Kevin Love at the basket.

Durant ends with a skilled finish, but not difficult one for him.

Note that Durant ends up on the ground on this play. In theory, this means the Cavs have a 5-on-4 if they inbound quickly, which Love does. One of Love’s elite skills is his long distance passing, so he’s always looking to fire out a quick outlet pass.

(Sidenote: Thunder fans, take note. Russell Westbrook can still run fast breaks without getting his own rebounds! Every other team in the league has done it for years! Let those bigs hit the boards and then fire quick outlets! No one is faster than the ball!)

Here’s how the play unfolds. Watch the arm signals of Kevin Durant (on the ground) and Draymond Green.

Durant points out that his man, LeBron James, needs to be covered. Green points to Shaun Livingston that he should cover Kyrie Irving, trailing on the left wing and that he will guard LeBron himself.

I’m not sure why Green stays put at the free throw line and lets LeBron have an open 3. I believe his reasoning was this. He could come up to the arc to prevent LeBron's open three, but that would leave him vulnerable to LeBron's driving past him for a dunk. All the other CLE players are shooters spacing at the three point line, so no one would be available to help. Or he could stay where we was, preventing LeBron driving.

I also think Green had another consideration: Durant and Love were well behind the play. If LeBron misses the open three, then a quick counterattack would force Love to guard Durant.

Does that seem like reading a lot into Green's thinking, even though he's a basketball genius? Maybe you'll be more convinced seeing how he acts on the counterattack. Watch the play, and then re-watch it and focus on Green.

Durant and Love had trailed the last play, and after LeBron's quick three, they are now naturally way ahead of the counterattack, off camera in the left corner. Notice how Draymond is pointing at the left corner and yelling at Curry to notice that Love is on Durant. A long pass from the top is risky. So Curry gets closer, Green claps to make sure he gets the ball, and then fires a bullet pass to Durant before any Cavs come over to help.

Notice evey Shaun Livingston gets into the act, yelling and pointing to Durant as he crosses halfcourt. It’s like a teamwide Red Alert whenever Kevin Love is guarding Durant.

Final Thoughts

Don’t get too cocky. Cleveland can play a lot better. Typically, GSW will not win the turnover battle:

  • Xmas: GSW 19 TOs, CLE 12
  • MLK: GSW 16, CLE 15

If we count turnovers as worth about a point, GSW’s edge of 20-4 produced at least 16 extra points, probably more. If CLE can muck up the game, reduce turnovers, and turn it into a grind of isolations and pick and rolls, then they could keep it close and steal Game 2.

On the other hand, the W’s also can play better. There were numerous switching mistakes on D, the W’s missed a dozen layups, and there could have been more off-ball motion on offense. Klay Thompson will eventually shoot better (3-16, 0-5 on 3s), Draymond might shoot better from 3 (1-5 in Game 1).

Though the W’s remain favorites, the series is still up for grabs. Many adjustments remain to be made.

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