The Cleveland Cavaliers used a 30-23 first quarter advantage over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday to help secure a hard-fought, 111-108 victory. The win makes four-straight for the Cavs, who now head to New York on Thursday for a matchup with Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks.
After struggling at times during a 5-7 start to the season, Cleveland is now two wins over .500 (9-7) and beginning to open games with more of a collective focus. The Cavs have won each of their last four first quarters by a combined score of 116-78, resulting in victories over Orlando, Washington, Indiana and Milwaukee. Instead of waiting for the second half to make an 11-4 run, for example, the Cavaliers are opening games with that type of effort and energy.
It’s a collective approach and focus on starting fast that All-NBA forward Kevin Love says has been critical to his team’s reversal of fortunes.
“It has a lot to do with our approach to the game, or our mentality,” Kevin Love told SLAM, while discussing the Cavaliers first quarter dominance of late. “We’re not just easing ourselves into the games as much as we were. Guys—myself included—we we’re letting the game come to us as much as possible early on. But, I think you see us off to the hot start now because we’re moving the ball better and we’re getting stops on defense early. That sets the tone for us for the rest of the game.”
Love did everything he could to help set that tone early against Jabari Parker, Brandon Knight, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the young, talented Bucks. The Cavs All-Star scored 17 points in the first quarter before finishing with 27 on the night, to go along with 10 rebounds. Love also connected on a critical three down the stretch, while knocking down 4-7 from beyond the arc.
It’s the type of performance that Cavs teammate and fellow big man Tristan Thompson says helps get the entire team excited early.
“It just gets everyone going,” Thompson said of Love’s dominant start against Milwaukee. “When he’s coming out like that—or any guy on our team comes out hot like that—we try to play through him. On nights like tonight, it makes the game easier for us just by feeding off his energy and momentum.”
The momentum Love carried into the Cavaliers ninth win of the season was inspired by a visit to Scranton Elementary School in Cleveland earlier that day. While teaming with Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation to “Pay It Forward” on Giving Tuesday, Love helped kick-off the holiday hoops season by surprising 200 enthusiastic elementary students with a stop by their gymnasium. During the visit, Dick’s along with Love donated 100 basketballs, autographed jerseys and other sporting goods and memorabilia to the students who were beyond excited to see Kevin Love strolling down their hallway.
Love also played knockout and conducted a Q+A session with the attentive, polite and captive audience before preparing himself for the game against Milwaukee. It was the type of trip that can’t help but remind the NBA superstar of what it felt like for him when he was the same age as the kids he was hanging with.
“Growing up in the Northwest, we had a lot of basketball players that we looked up to,” Love said. “Living in Portland, I always wanted to meet the Blazers growing up. As time went on, I eventually did, but not when I was younger. But I do remember meeting several of the different area high school and college stars, and it meant a lot to me back then. So to be here in those shoes today, in my seventh year in the League, to try to make an impact in Cleveland with Dick’s Sporting Goods, it means a lot. Seeing the kid’s faces, and interacting with them, it’s a lot of fun and I really enjoy it.”
Giving Tuesday continued to be fun for Love until his leg cramped up late in the fourth quarter. He checked out with around one minute remaining and watched LeBron James seal the victory at the free-throw line. Afterward, Cavaliers coach David Blatt said Love’s leg cramps aren’t expected to be an issue on Thursday in New York.
That’s obviously good news for Cavs fans who have just watched Love average 22 points and 8.3 rebounds on 62 percent (31-50) shooting from field during the four-game winning streak. He’s also collected four steals and two blocks while being praised by Blatt for playing what his coach describes as the best defense of Love’s career. As Cleveland continues to grow and gel as a collective unit, there’s good reason to expect more of the same.
Photos courtesy of Jason Miller of AP and DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation