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Steve Aschbruner

Kevin Love, right, and Al Jefferson are two reasons the Wolves are looking up.
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

From Minnesota with Love: Wolves finally looking better

Posted Dec 11 2009 11:39AM

Your first thought in assessing Kevin Love's impact on the Minnesota Timberwolves is to locate point guard Jonny Flynn and urgently cordon him off with yellow police-scene tape. Wrap him up in a blanket, maybe, or even go all Bubble Boy on him to keep the kid from Syracuse out of harm's way.

Bad things happen to high draft picks in Minnesota, where first-round selections become second-year casualties. Dating to their 2005 choice, Rashad McCants (knee), Randy Foye (knee), Corey Brewer (knee) and Love (broken left hand) all have endured significant injuries that messed with their development. It's not exactly a curse of Walton-Bowie-Oden proportions, but it is enough of a pattern to make you worry about Flynn's welfare. And, while you're at it, text a "Be careful out there!'' message (Tenga cuidado ahí fuera) over to Barcelona for Ricky Rubio.

Your second thought in assessing Love's impact in one full NBA season and a second belated one is that this is a much improved team with the versatile, resourceful power forward from UCLA available again.

Love returned last week in a game at New Orleans -- seven weeks after breaking the fourth metacarpal in his left hand in a preseason game at Chicago -- and made an immediate difference with 11 points and 11 rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench. In four outings heading into the Wolves' game Friday against the Lakers in L.A., the 21-year-old with the buzzcut and the baby face has had three such double-doubles. The team's 1-3 record feels better already than the 2-16 mess that preceded it, largely because it has been: Since Love returned, Minnesota has been outscored by just nine points, an average of 2.3 per game, compared to its 12.8 scoring gap on a typical night without him.

His ability to snag a defensive rebound and almost instantly find teammates dashing upcourt with outlet passes that recall, oh, Wes Unseld or Dave Cowens, has been verified as well. In their three most recent games, the Wolves have scored 21, 21 and 22 fastbreak points, compared to the 14 or so they averaged during Love's absence. This is more how coach Kurt Rambis envisioned his young team playing.

"The guards will never have to come back to the ball,'' Love vowed upon his return. "I'll be getting rebounds, throwing them to Jonny or Corey, whoever. I don't know if [the team's attack] needs to change, but I think it will change.''

So might opponents' game plans now that Love -- playing with a black, padded offensive lineman's glove on his left hand for protection -- is available as a threat up front. Or at the elbow. Or wherever else he might wind up with the ball in Rambis' freshly installed triangle system, a style that seems to suit the 6-foot-10 player's mid-range shooting and passing skills. Love is 5-for-8 from 3-point range in four games, after going 2-for-19 in 81 as a rookie.

After Love hit a pair from the arc, en route to 18 points and 10 rebounds in a 108-101 victory over Utah on Saturday at Target Center, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan could only blink incredulously at someone who wondered afterward: "Does Love make a difference on that team?''

"You're not joking, are you?'' Sloan asked. "He's a terrific player. He knows how to play basketball. He passes the ball, he sets screens, he does whatever it takes to try to play the game. It's not that difficult, but we make it difficult because we think we have to do something sensational. He just plays and never gets off the floor. Those guys play for years and years in this league.''

Getting off the floor isn't a big deal with Love. Getting off the bench -- as in, into the starting lineup -- needn't be, either.

In time, Love will find a way ... er, will conquer all ... uh, will contribute in bigger and better ways to Minnesota's long-term rebuilding. If team president David Kahn's vision for the roster has Al Jefferson as the Wolves' "second-best player'' -- suggesting that an All-Star better than Big Al will be arriving somehow, some way -- then Love figures to rank as its third- or fourth-best performer. That suggests a starting spot, more responsibility, a fatter contract, long-term security, all those perks.

But going slower, rather than faster, on teaming Love and Jefferson as a tandem makes sense for now. There are advantages to be found in using Love in reserve, where he can win matchups against other teams' second units. He and Jefferson both are 6-foot-10 and, while their styles are very different, using them together remains an experiment.

Don't forget, Jefferson went down 50 games into Love's rookie season; Love logged 42 percent of his playing time in 2008-09 in those final 32 games, sans Big Al. They started just eight games together, with the Wolves losing all of them. This season, Jefferson played his first 16 games with Love unavailable. Since his return, Love and Jefferson have been on the floor at the same time for about 66 of Loves' 109 minutes.

There is no reason the two shouldn't be able to co-exist, even thrive, offensively. Jefferson has extended his game a bit but remains most formidable down low; Love can step out, face the basket and find cutters or nail 15-footers in Rambis' triangle.

The bigger challenge comes at the defensive end, where both men are undersized for the spots they're playing. Jefferson is the Wolves' default center but would prefer to play power forward. Love has small-forward ball skills but lacks the foot speed to guard those types of guys. Let's not forget that forward Ryan Gomes, so long a role player, has been excelling lately, averaging 20.3 points on 59 percent shooting in his six most recent games. Rambis has been reluctant to tinker with Gomes or Damien Wilkins at the forward spots.

There's no need to rush. Love's minutes can increase with his stamina. Starting games, we've all been told, means less than finishing them. And coming off the bench, for however long it lasts, can serve as homage to another Kevin with Minnesota ties.

It was Kevin McHale, after all, who won two Sixth Man awards with the Boston Celtics in 1984 and 1985, even making an All-Star team in '84. It was McHale, too, who maneuvered for Love on Draft night 2008, acquiring him from Memphis for O.J. Mayo while shedding some serious salary-cap ballast. It was McHale who touted Love as, first and foremost, "a basketball player,'' which was his way of swatting down labels on power forwards vs. small forwards vs. wing players vs. other assorted pigeonholes.

And it was McHale who, even in his absence now, has kept alive a different Wolves Draft pattern: Landing a kid named Kevin in the first round has paid off for this franchise every time.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

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