Kevin Love cradled the basketball in his hands as he stood beyond the three-point line, his eyes roaming the Staples Center court until DeAndre Jordan came into focus when he rushed out to defend Love.
As Jordan took his long steps from inside the lane toward the Cleveland Cavaliers’ power forward, Love dribbled to the basket and drew a foul on the Clippers’ center in the second quarter of last Sunday’s game, a 114-90 rout by the Cavaliers.
Only Love was playing center at that moment, the new role he frequently plays in the small-ball lineup Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue has increasingly relied on.
It has been beneficial for Love and the Cavaliers, allowing the former UCLA standout to utilize more of his passing skills than he had since being acquired by Cleveland during the summer of 2014.
“Obviously, it’s a different dynamic that we’re able to play with,” Love said after the Cavaliers defeated the Clippers. “We can also play big. So having those different lineups out there are good. LeBron [James] playing the four, me playing the five, I think it helps us in certain situations.”
Love has been able to create more in his role as the center, with the offense at times running through him.
“It benefits us a lot. [Against the Clippers], that’s what opened the game up for us,” Lue said.
In the first half the Cavaliers extended a five-point lead to 17 points at halftime after Loved moved to center. “Putting K-Love at [center] got DJ out of the paint and now LeBron and Kyrie were able to penetrate and get open shots because Kevin was able to stretch the floor and DJ couldn’t protect the paint.”
It also means James and Irving don’t always have to initiate the Cavaliers’ offense.
“It all depends what the matchups are. But for him, he’s able to spread the floor,” James said of Love. “He’s able to even get more space out there with me at the four, ... him at the five. So it definitely creates matchup problems.”
In many ways, the change to the smaller lineup was a reaction to the Golden State Warriors.
The Cavaliers lost in the NBA Finals last June when the Warriors shifted to a small lineup, leaving Cleveland powerless to find an answer. The Warriors swept the final three games of the series.
In the two games between the rivals this season, the Warriors defeated the Cavaliers by six points on Christmas and destroyed them by 34 points in Cleveland.
“I think everybody is kind of obsessing over them,” Love said. “It’s kind of crazy the way it’s been going with them, and last year was no different.”
Love didn’t play in the NBA Finals after he suffered a dislocated left shoulder in a first-round playoff series against Boston, with surgery ending his season.
But whether playing center or his natural position of power forward, Love has been willing to sacrifice his game.
Lue knows what kind of force Love was in Minnesota, and he began searching for ways to get similar results in Cleveland.
In his final season playing for the Timberwolves in 2013-14, Love averaged a career-best 26.1 points a game and 12.5 rebounds. He shot 45.9% from the field, 37.6% from three-point range, as he made his third All-Star team.
This season with Cleveland, Love is averaging 15.7 points and 10 rebounds and is shooting 41.2% from the field, 34.6% from three-point range, before Friday night’s game.
And Love hasn’t been an All-Star in his two seasons in Cleveland.
“It’s tough, because in Minnesota he was the focal point,” Lue said. “Now on this team, we have three guys on that level and are that caliber of player. So each night it’s going to be someone different. If two of the three … play good, then we’re going to be fine. The thing with K-Love that he understands is that tonight could be his night. Tonight could be Kyrie’s night. Tonight could be LeBron’s night.
“I’ve got to do a better job of getting him into a rhythm, getting him in his comfort zone. Defensively, he has stepped up and been a lot better. That’s all we can ask of him right now.”
Love will always be comfortable at power forward, but he’s forcing himself to alter his approach when he’s facing the biggest player on the opposing team.
“There’s times when … LeBron is picking and popping and playing downhill and I’m rolling to the basket and trying to make plays from there. So it’s just being closer to the basket,” Love said. “But you are more aggressive out there when you have a big [center] on you.”
Follow Broderick Turner on Twitter: @BA_Turner