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    Hawks at Cavaliers

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    lethalweapon3

     

    It’s only crazy until you Do It.

     

    As far as I can tell, Rudy Wanderone never even spent a minute in the Gopher State. He was an immigrant New Yorker. During the Great Depression, Rudy did what many a young Manhattanite aspired to do during the Roaring Twenties. He became a pool shark.

    And a darned good one, too. Taking his trick-shot skills on the road, Rudy got well into his adulthood, relocating to D.C. and later Illinois and Virginia, craftily separating marks from their money at the billiards tables. Gaining a low-key notoriety among those in the know, the burly Wanderone was just fine adopting the sobriquets he was given along the way: “New York Fats,” “Broadway Fats,” “Chicago Fats”.

    Then came The Hustler.

    The 1961 adapted film starred Paul Newman opposite the stocky Jackie Gleason, in a pool-styled predecessor to the Rocky-Apollo Creed skit. The antagonist that Gleason played from both the book and the flick, depicted as the hands-down best pool player in America, went by the name “Minnesota Fats.”

    Believing with all his heart, that the character was based on him, Rudy Wanderone didn’t ask for permission. He adopted that fictional moniker for himself, just in time for book deals and a viewership eager to be entertained as the Golden Age of Television reached its sunset. Turns out, that was a wise, profitable move.

    Over a half-century later, ask around about the greatest men’s billiards player of all time, and you’d find most folks would be pressed to recall the exceptional, but dry, Willie Mosconi. If you needed to win on “Super Password” with the secret word, “Fats”, start with “Minnesota…” and your gameshow partner isn’t likely to guess “Timberwolves?”

    Minnesota Fats became America’s Pool Player, even though he never actually won a formal billiards championship. He remains known as such decades after his passing; many people thought that was his birth name. Using his wit and guile to belie a boastful, competitive spirit, he successfully promoted not only his own persona but the game he loved, lifting it out of smoky gambling halls and into the living rooms of the mainstream.

    It’s time for somebody else to be globally renowned by the first-name Minnesota.

    Kevin Love was well on his way to becoming the second-greatest Timberwolf named Kevin of all time. That was, until Akron native LeBron James got homesick, looked around Cleveland, and suspected a future that included Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett was likely to be a murky one... after all, I mean, what does everyone think LeBron is, a babysitter?

    James donned his Super Secret GM hat for his second go-round with the Cavs, and he grabbed a three-time All-Star from the T’wolves via trade, to help Tristan Thompson chase his and Kyrie Irving’s misses. By that time, Love was the preeminent rebounding forward in the game, at the ripe age of 25. He was also just beginning to display a pleasant perimeter stroke and a smooth passing touch he spent many years honing.

    In his final season with the Wolves, Love earned All-NBA Second Team, averaging well over 25 PPG, over 12 RPG, and a career-best 4.4 APG. The rub was just that his Minnesota team, much like the one that surrounded Kyrie, was wretched, his Wolves topping out at 40-42 and nine games out of the playoffs in the West. Joining LeBron in Ohio was supposed to fix all ills. It certainly did fix the “not making playoffs” issue. But it created new ones for Love.

    Kevin got his ring in 2016. But shortly after arriving in Cleveland, it did seem like “Kevin” had become his middle name – and “Blame” his first. Clevelanders tentative to heap criticism on The King, who was kind enough to bestow his presence upon a perpetual lottery team after winning titles in Miami, or face-of-the-future Irving, found convenience in turning a lot of their scorn onto Love, who was decidedly (perhaps, too comfortably) the third banana. Some teammates weren’t all that far behind the fans.

    Moments which directed a high degree of the unforgiving spotlight towards him, like the Kyrie-free contest against Luke Babbitt and the lowly Atlanta Hawks in November of last year, brought about panic attacks for Love at the worst possible times. Dealing with them, undiagnosed and untreated, brought forth internal team dissension that was no longer possible to obscure. A disappointing loss? Blame Kevin Love. “When,” fans would ask each other, loudly enough for him to hear, “are we finally going to see Minnesota Kevin?”

    Congrats, Cavs Nation, you are getting your chance. Like another guy once regaled as The King, LeBron Has Left The Building, probably for good this time around. Kyrie read the tea leaves a season early, and skidded across the flat earth all the way to Beantown. That essentially leaves Kevin Love as the face of the Cavaliers for today’s home opener at Quicken Loans Arena. That could be a good thing for the Hawks’ opponent this evening (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio in CLE), if one chooses to look at it that way.

    Love returns with greater peace of mind, now getting treatment for his illness, and with a new, four-year, $120 million contract in his pocket. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the Cavs are going to need their 30-year-old star to play like “Minnesota Kevin” if they are going to return to the playoffs. Post moves to attack the rim, boxing out for defensive boards and making Wes Unseld-style outlet passes to ignite breaks, drawing extra defenders and kicking the ball out to open shooters. Most importantly for Minnesota Kevin, not hesitating in deference to superstars who no longer roam The Land.

    LeBron’s Leftovers on coach Tyronn Lue’s squad would be smart, though, to ignore what any Kartrashian spouse has to say, particularly about their team still being the defending conference champions until further notice. Sears was a prominent department store for quite some time, too. But nobody’s deluded into thinking they’ll be around for much longer.

    The immediate challenge for Love is that he gets to play in The Land of Fatally Flawed Toys. Fellows like J.R. Smith, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver, George Hill and local native Larry Nance (questionable, ankle) were never going to be headed to Cleveland without LeBron’s explicit blessings during the annual runs to The Finals.

    Heck, Thompson would probably have been long gone, too. Now they all remain, defensive deficiencies and all (26th in D-Rating through two games, worse than Atlanta’s 24th), left to the whims of T-Lue and Larry Drew to make work as the reformulated Pips, behind Love’s Gladys.

    With James gone, and Nance (questionable, sprained ankle) and Dekker (head injury @ MIN) dealing with early injuries, 2015 second-rounder Cedi Osman evolves from a Cool Story Bro to an actual starter on this roster, one which struggled to stop pretty much any Raptor (what a difference a few months make, eh?) during their 116-104 opening loss in Toronto – four team steals, zero blocks. Lottery rookie guard Colin Sexton, plus big men Ante Zizic and Sam Dekker, essentially spackle the final holes among the reserves.

    In Friday’s consternation-filled home tipoff for the T’Wolves, Love offered fans for both teams a glimpse of the Minnesota Kevin of yore – 25 points, 19 boards (17 defensive), 7 dimes. While he continues to feast from drawing fouls and getting to the charity stripe (10-for-10 FTs @ MIN), he suffers in a vein similar to Hawks rookie Trae Young.

    Opposing defenders don’t respect Love’s floormates, bringing double-teams his way all over the court. That leaves Love a high-volume, low-efficiency shooter (6-for-19 FGs) who needs complete games from Osman (career-high 22 points, 8 assists @ MIN), Thompson (7-for-9 FGs, 4 O-Rebs @ MIN), and others off the bench, for his team to stay in the running most nights.

    With Love (16 third-quarter points) leading the charge, Cleveland (0-2) dropped 41 points on the Wolves in the third quarter, yet still fell by a 131-123 score. His team-high 21 points two nights before (5-for-18 FGs, 10-for-14 FTs @ TOR), and Osman’s 17 points and 10 rebounds, proved futile against the Raptors.

    The Cavs (five team steals, three blocks @ MIN) need to manufacture stops, and it’s not likely that they’re missing the defensive inputs of Smith (sore elbow) and Nance any more than Atlanta has tried to impede foes without ankle-hobbled frontcourt starters John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon, among others.

    For all their woes on defense, especially around the perimeter (42.4 opponent 3FG%, 5th-highest in NBA), the Hawks’ offense under new coach Lloyd Pierce is showing signs of life (54.3 eFG%, 10th in NBA). That is, when they’re not committing copious unforced errors (league-low 1.07 assist/TO ratio; 19.6 TO% and 26.0 opponent PPG off TOs, 29th in NBA). Whether the Cavaliers will take an active role in forcing errors out of Atlanta (0-2) remains to be seen.

    Minnesota Kevin leading the way to victory today, and more often in the months to come, might prove beneficial for both the Cavs and the shorthanded Hawks (2019 top-10-protected pick, from the 2017 Korver trade) in the long run. But if Hill and Sexton fail to get help prying the ball out of Young’s deft hands, will it be the Cavs that find themselves getting… snookered?

     

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3


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