The Enigma of the Kevin Love First Quarter

The league's top first quarter scorer fizzles out after the first. Is the problem something he's doing or is it the team? Also, why can't Love score later in the game?

Kevin Love usually doesn't play the entire first quarter. In fact, he averages just over nine minutes of playing time in the first quarter. Despite guys like James Harden, Anthony Davis, or DeMar DeRozan playing all 12 minutes almost every night, Kevin Love is outscoring all of them in the opening period of games this season. What in the world is happening?

Before digging into the stats, the eye test shows that the Cavaliers force-feed Kevin Love the basketball early in games. The pattern seems to be that Love scores in the first, then the bench scores a lot in the second, followed by LeBron and Kyrie doing the heavy-lifting in the second half. It has certainly felt that way for more than just the past month—it was an obvious effort last year for the Cavaliers as well. The theory has been that if Kevin Love gets going early and gets confident, he'll play a better game from start to finish. He's said so himself, and so has Coach Lue

By now you've seen the highlights of Love scoring 34 in the first quarter against the Blazers last week. Here's how it started.

There was an obvious defensive game plan for the Blazers: Make Kevin Love (or JR Smith or Tristan Thompson) beat us. Not Kyrie and not LeBron. You can see the defense wildly overplaying LeBron and Irving, leaving Love open. Whether that's a poor game plan or an amazingly bad stretch of defense by Mason Plumlee, I don't know. What I do know is that the outburst was unsustainable. 

I attended this game with a friend of mine and we made jokes like "he has 30 right now - will he clear 35 in the game?" Or"34 in the first quarter - does he clear 40 in the game?" Obviously, these were at least partially jokes, but we both knew there was truth in them. It's no secret. Love disappears after the first quarter. How big is the difference?

For the stats: Love averages 9.5 points per first quarter and 22.3 points per game. The average first quarter for the Cavaliers sees Kevin Love making 3.3 out of 6.5 field goal attempts including him making 1.1 out of 2.1 threes per first quarter. The numbers also show that he's at 50 percent from the floor and 51 percent from beyond the arc in the first 12 minutes. 

2nd quarter: Less than five points per quarter and 41 percent from the field in 7.5 minutes. 3.4 field goals per 2nd quarter.

3rd quarter: Less than five points per quarter and 42 percent from the field in just under nine minutes. 3.6 field goals per 3rd quarter.

4th quarter: Four points per quarter on 42 percent from the field in just under eight minutes. 11 percent from deep in the 4th quarter.

To clarify, Kevin Love is averaging 6.5 field goal attempts per 1st quarter and about 5.5 field goal attempts per 2nd half. 

The Cavaliers have run Love on pick and pops, post-ups, and off-ball screens. They do it every quarter of every game but the bulk of it is done (or at least is done effectively) in first quarters. In second halves, when the scoring load moves over to LeBron and Kyrie, we actually see Love's Usage percentage drop by 10 percent (this stat basically measures how involved a guy is when he's on the floor). It's really remarkable, and once again, it follows the results of the eye test.

Here's the bottom line: Kevin Love seems happy. He was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, he had his number retired by UCLA, he carries around championship belts, he has an NBA title, he's about to return to the All-Star Game, and he's making $25 million a year. Life is good for the 28-year-old. ??

So to answer the question: What's happening to Kevin Love after the first quarter? Nothing. He's getting fewer shots because LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are getting more. 

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