Kevin Love

David Richard/USA Today Sports

Tomase: The Celtics must stop one player to reach Finals, and it's not LeBron

John Tomase
May 13, 2018 - 2:10 am

Forget about stopping LeBron James. It's impossible. Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers once compared him to Earl Campbell, the Hall of Fame running back known for lowering his helmet and pulverizing sternums. There's no basketball player alive who can stop Earl Campbell.

There are plenty who can stop Kevin Love, however. And if the Celtics want to claim one of the most improbable Finals berths in history, he's the player they'll need to silence.

The Eastern Conference Finals open on Sunday at TD Garden, and all eyes will be on James, but discerning ones should be on Love. LeBron is going to get his no matter what. He'll overwhelm Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, he's too quick for Al Horford, he's too big for Marcus Smart, and let's not lose our minds over Marcus Morris. The last time these teams met, James scored 24 points in 27 minutes of a 22-point blowout.

Let's just give LeBron a 35-10-9 before the tip and hope to limit the damage thereafter. In the debate between focusing on LeBron or everyone else, put me on Team Everyone Else. But let's call it Team Someone Else, because with all due respect to Kyle Korver, Tristan Thompson and the trade deadline acquisitions who were supposed to matter -- where have you gone Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance? -- we're really talking about one guy.

It's fair to say the Cleveland years haven't been kind to Love, even if they've produced a championship. He missed time earlier this season battling anxiety -- and was reportedly chewed out by ex-Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas in the process -- and has never quite fit the third-wheel role Chris Bosh played so ably in Miami.

In Love's final season with the Wolves, he averaged 26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds. He hasn't topped 19 points a game in four seasons at LeBron's side, and life as a floor spacer has damaged his rebounding numbers, too. He's the rare superstar whose name seems to surface in trade talks every winter.

With Kyrie Irving in Boston, however, Love is now LeBron's clear No. 2 and he's not delivering. In a brutal seven-game first-round series with the Pacers, Love averaged just 11.4 points on 33 percent shooting. He never showed in an 18-point Game 1 loss, as well as a 34-point blowout in Game 6. A 14-point, six-rebound Game 7 represented one of his best efforts of the series; not exactly prime production for a superstar.

The Toronto series showed what kind of team Cleveland can be when Love is on target. After a horrific Game 1 that saw him score seven points on 3-of-13 shooting (Cleveland won anyway because the Raptors imploded and LeBron exploded), Love came alive.

Over the final three games -- two blowouts and one that James won with a runner off the glass -- Love scored 31, 21, and 23 points while grabbing 13, 11, and six rebounds.

He scored in the paint, he scored on second chances, and he scored from deep (6-of-13 on 3-pointers). The difference can't be overstated. With Love knocking down open shots and forcing defenses to stay at home, James had a field day in the paint. Love compiled a plus-72 in those three games and the Cavaliers cruised.

Now comes Boston. The Celtics struggle with LeBron like everyone else, but they're playing inspired defense and contesting shots from the rim to the arc. A year ago they won Game 3 in Cleveland and held a 16-point lead in Game 4 before Irving came alive and destroyed them with a 42-point performance.

The Celtics are better now and Cleveland is worse. Brown and Tatum represent huge upgrades over Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk. Horford is playing out of his mind. Terry Rozier's all-around game has surpassed Avery Bradley's. Marcus Smart will corral the next loose ball or separate his shoulder trying.

The Celtics may be thin without Irving, big man Daniel Theis, and even backup guard Shane Larkin, but it's not like the Cavs are deep -- the Celtics have seven players averaging 20 postseason minutes a game and the Cavs only six.

One of them is the key to the series. Stopping LeBron requires Jersey barriers and spike strips, and even then he might still steamroll you on rims alone. Beating Cleveland is about limiting his supporting cast, which is a doable proposition.

That starts with Love, and the Celtics have the pieces to make his life miserable, either by forcing him to defend Horford in the post, or by running him off the three-point line on offense.

So when the series starts on Sunday, it may be hard to take your eyes off No. 23, but don't be blinded by LeBron's greatness. Keep searching for No. 0 and let's see what he's made of.

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