In a sport defined by complexities and instabilities that run like current through the dribbles and layups, there are some truths one can't avoid, "hot takes" be damned.
Let's peel the blanket off the elephant in the room: The Cleveland Cavaliers are better against the Golden State Warriors when Kevin Love is not on the floor.
In the two games the Cavs have played with Love, they've lost to the Warriors by 48 points. In the seven games he has been out over the past two years, they've been a different animal against Golden State. Without Love, Cleveland competed in nearly every contest in last year's Finals, and it just won Game 3 on Wednesday night at home, handing the Warriors their worst loss of the Steve Kerr era 120-90.
There have been whispers that were more like intentionally loud murmurs coming from Golden State before this series and after the first two wins that they felt more confident with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in the lineup than they did last year against the bigger, slower team left over after Love and Irving were hurt. The Warriors can isolate Love, track him down in pick-and-roll situations and hammer him. Speed by him with Stephen Curry. Power past him with Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala. Hammer him with bigs. Force help, create space and exploit the matchup.
Without him, in Game 3, the Cavaliers turned to 35-year-old NBA journeyman Richard Jefferson ... Richard Jefferson! ... and their defense tightened considerably. Jefferson's cuts to the rim are crisper, and defensively, the Cavs were able to stay home on switches without bringing help. Combine that with a terrific performance from Irving (30 points on 12-of-25 shooting) -- and a horrific Warriors effort that Draymond Green described as "peaches and cream" -- and you have an absolute demolition of the mighty Warriors.
The Love dynamic has been complicated from the start in Cleveland. Love was largely ignored in David Blatt's offense, he struggled with "fitting in" which LeBron James did not take well and there was widespread speculation he might depart in free agency. Instead, after a pool-side talk with James before free agency, he re-signed on a max five-year deal, and started the season with a bang. Then Irving returned ... and the same problems popped up. But still, lineups with Love and the Big 2 on the court were dominant, and Love put in multiple 20-plus-point performances as the Cavs rolled through the Eastern Conference into the Finals.
But here we are again, wondering how the Cavs are better with a 35-year-old journeyman than the max contract superstar who cost them Andrew Wiggins). Whatever this means for the future can wait. The offseason, a possible trade of Love (long rumored to potentially involve Boston), the bigger picture, that can wait.
The Cavaliers face another must-win Game 4. They put the Warriors on the mat in Round 3, but going back to the Bay down 3-1 would spell certain doom. Charles Barkley said on NBA TV on Wednesday night that the Cavaliers need to (and will) start Love in Game 4, that they got to this point with him and they can't afford to ruin his confidence.
But the truth is they don't have that luxury. The Cavs, despite the 30-point margin of victory in Game 3, have no margin for error. They can't mess around or trust the process. They've found something that works vs. the Warriors and must pound it with a hammer until it hopefully breaks them. They can't pin hopes on a matchup that has shown no promise.
That's not to say Love should sit entirely. Start Jefferson, deploy Love in situational lineups where he can have success in against the Warriors' bench unit (which have been huge for Golden State and terrible for the Cavs) and worry about the long-term ramifications later. Love might even flourish in a different situation. But what they cannot do is charge back into the face of the Warriors' starters with Love.
There's a conversation to be had about whether the Cavs can win a title with Love as their third-best player but that's irrelevant now. The question now: Can this great Cavaliers team beat this all-time Warriors team with Love as their third-best player? The evidence says no. That's no referendum on Love's career, nor does it diminish his significant contributions as a passer, scorer and rebounder. Love's story as an NBA player is not yet fully written.
But mounting evidence suggests that whatever formula Cleveland needs to beat the Warriors team in four of seven games, Love is not central to that equation.
Kerr said after the game that Love's absence didn't have any impact and the outcome would have been the same had Love played. But, at some point if you're the Cavs, you have to ride the momentum, deal with where the trail has taken you and play to those strengths. If you bring Love off the bench, the Splash Brothers go ballistic, and you lose, at least you'll know you didn't waste the adjustment in front of you.
But there's no getting around it. The Cavaliers have been better without Love vs. the Warriors. That elephant has gotten too big to ignore, no matter how painful the narrative may be.