'Old Man' Kevin Love no 'energy vampire', becomes young Cavaliers' igniter after role change

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Cavaliers forward Kevin Love (0) has embraced a bench role and says he's having more fun playing basketball this season than he has since 2015-16. [Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports]
Cavaliers forward Kevin Love (0) has embraced a bench role and says he's having more fun playing basketball this season than he has since 2015-16. [Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports]

When he first saw 14-year veteran Kevin Love let his emotions loose with a leap and a scream, Isaac Okoro admitted he was startled.

“I didn’t know he had that much bounce in him so, I mean, seeing him jump that high off the ground, it was surprising to me,” Okoro said Monday.

At age 33, Love has been high-fiving and chest-bumping his young Cavaliers teammates all season even though the five-time All-Star forward is coming off the bench for the first time in his career.

Winning has certainly eased Love's transition. After Love led the Cavs with 20 points and 11 rebounds in Monday night’s 95-93 victory over the New York Knicks at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the Cavs (29-19) stood fifth in the Eastern Conference, 1½ games out of first. Totaling 22, 19, and 19 victories the previous three seasons, they are setting their sights on a top-six seed, which would keep them out of the league's play-in tournament.

Love is loving every moment.

“Outside of ‘15-‘16 ... I don’t know that I’ve had more fun in the NBA,” Love said Friday on the “Old Man and the Three” podcast with JJ Redick and Tommy Alter.

In 2015-16, Love helped the Cavs win the NBA title and end Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought alongside LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. This season Love has been supplanted by center/forward Evan Mobley, the third overall pick, and a Cavs' three big-man lineup that includes center Jarrett Allen and forward Lauri Markannen, acquired in an offseason trade.

The Cavs are built around Mobley, Allen, and point guard Darius Garland, whom Love calls his "little brother."

“We were a very, very close team in ‘15-’16,” Love said after shootaround Saturday. “Here you can just feel that we have a special group of high character individuals and really good communicators. You see that from Evan, who just turned 20 years old, and all the way to [Rajon Rondo].

“You don’t get that often. It’s really fun. Just want to bottle that up.”

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Cavaliers guard Darius Garland, left, celebrates with forward Kevin Love after Love made a 3-pointer during a game earlier this season. [Tony Dejak/Associated Press]
Cavaliers guard Darius Garland, left, celebrates with forward Kevin Love after Love made a 3-pointer during a game earlier this season. [Tony Dejak/Associated Press]

The closeness has made it easier for Love to accept a reduction in minutes after injuries limited him to 103 out of 219 games from 2018-21.

“The sacrifice could really give back more than it costs,” Love told Redick and Alter.

That's a subject Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said he and Love have discussed since camp began.

“He made the ultimate sacrifice of basketball, probably a first-ballot Hall of Famer, to basically pass the torch to a rookie,” Bickerstaff said before Monday's game.

“That’s not easy to do. Not only did he do it, he did it without hangover. He didn’t hold onto it the next day or the next weeks and walk around pouting and be an energy vampire. He accepted the role and then tried to be the best at it, tried to help the team as best he possibly could.

“To me, those are the guys that deserve all of our respect because it’s not easy. We see guys go out fighting all the way. For him to do that and contribute to the team and try to help the young guys, that’s giving back to the game and that’s what this game is about.”

Cleveland guard Isaac Okoro and forward Kevin Love celebrate in the second half of a Monday night's win over the New York Knicks. [Tony Dejak/Associated Press]
Cleveland guard Isaac Okoro and forward Kevin Love celebrate in the second half of a Monday night's win over the New York Knicks. [Tony Dejak/Associated Press]

Love’s tangible joy is reflected in his statistics, which have put him in the conversation for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. In 40 games, he's averaging 14 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.2 assists, and is shooting .434 from the field.

Love’s 3-point percentage of .402 is the third-highest of his career and his best since 2017-18 (.415), and his 21.4 minutes are a career-low. His stat line is not that far off what he posted in 2015-16, when he averaged 16 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 2.4 assists in 31.5 minutes, shooting .419 from the field and .360 from long range.

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There have been times this season when Love has turned back the clock, and Monday was one of those. He made four consecutive 3-pointers in a span of 2:44 in the third quarter, the last a 31-footer that put the Cavs ahead by 11 and sent the crowd into a frenzy.

"I feel like once a game he goes on those little runs by himself. It just gives us so much energy," Cavs forward Dean Wade said afterward. "Defensively, everyone flies around and has a little more step. It’s so much fun when does that.”

Love went home glad those screaming fans have a short memory after some of his impetuous and selfish transgressions the previous three seasons.

"The world that we live in now people tend to have quick memories. I'm thankful for that," Love said Monday. "And in this league, fortunate momentum can change on a dime. We're 10 games over .500. That's what's making — not only myself and the team and the organization — but the fans really excited, too. They love to see us have success.

"Winning changes a lot. And learning from some mistakes. I'm still young enough that I can change, even though these guys call me 'The Old Man' and 'Uncle Kevin.' ... Big plays down the stretch and really feeling that energy I felt those four years when we were making our [Finals] runs. It's amazing to see."

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The team's unselfishness is part of the reason Love is thriving.

“It gives me a lot of energy, it gives this group a lot of energy and I think the reason all of us are having so much fun is that we’re a big share-the-wealth type of team,” Love said. “We obviously play through DG, JA, and Evan, but outside of that everybody wants to make the right play and we don’t want to let anybody else down. That’s beautiful basketball and winning basketball.

“Guys that want to get better, come to work every single day and sacrifice for each other, playing meaningful basketball makes us all really happy — and myself included.”

Love knows there will be ups and downs, like losing guards Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio to season-ending knee injuries.

“But it’s how we pick each other back up,” Love said. “That continuity and togetherness of the team is pretty cool to see.”

Cleveland forward Kevin Love (0) congratulates teammate Brandon Goodwin (26) during a game earlier this season. [Nick Cammett/Associated Press]
Cleveland forward Kevin Love (0) congratulates teammate Brandon Goodwin (26) during a game earlier this season. [Nick Cammett/Associated Press]

Love’s attitude has changed dramatically as he's passed the torch. It helps that he's close with Bickerstaff, spending three seasons together with the Minnesota Timberwolves after Love was drafted fifth overall in 2008 and Bickerstaff was an assistant coach there.

Their family connections date to August 1973, when Love’s father, Stan, now 72, was traded from the Capital Bullets [now the Washington Wizards] to the Los Angeles Lakers as Bickerstaff’s father, Bernie, 77, the Cavs’ senior basketball advisor, was breaking into the NBA as an assistant coach in Washington.

But seeing Love chest-bumping Garland does not take J.B. Bickerstaff back to their Timberwolves days.

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“He was a little different when I first met him,” Bickerstaff said of Love, chuckling. “It’s great to see him playing with that passion and committing to the group the way he is and the spirit that he’s bringing. He’s had since I’ve been here a rough stretch, with injuries and things like that and being in and out. For him to be back and feel like he’s a part of something greater than himself, that’s why we do what we do ... to be able to compete with guys you genuinely care about.

"For him to be able to showcase that with all the things that he’s been through recently, you love and respect that.”

A rejuvenated Love has not neglected the basketball part of his game. After a 114-107 home victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 17, he returned to the court for extra shots, setting a tone for the young team.

“It's leadership. It's that sacrifice that we talked about Kevin making at the beginning of the year,” Bickerstaff said that night. “When you’ve got guys that have done so much, that are willing to take that step back to let the other guys go forward, the guys appreciate that and they respect him for that.”

Okoro, who turns 21 on Wednesday, is one of those.

Asked what it’s like to see Love reveling in his teammates’ big plays even when he’s not on the court, Okoro said, “It’s exciting to see that. Whenever somebody’s smiling, having fun, having energy on the bench, it gives us energy.

“Just seeing him that excited, it’s a blessing to be around.”

Cavaliers forward Kevin Love meets guard Darius Garland (10) as Garland walks off the court during a game earlier this season. [Associated Press]
Cavaliers forward Kevin Love meets guard Darius Garland (10) as Garland walks off the court during a game earlier this season. [Associated Press]

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Read more about the Cavs at www.beaconjournal.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.

Bucks at Cavaliers

Time: 7 p.m. Wednesday

TV: Bally Sports Ohio

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Cavaliers Kevin Love revels in winning, bench role

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