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Love prepared for harsh welcome-back in Minnesota

Leaving Twin Cities brightened forward's short, long-term futures

POSTED: Jan 31, 2015 1:22 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Minnesota went 153-323 in Kevin Love's six seasons there, never making the playoffs.

Someone asked Kevin Love recently if he was ready for his big return game to Target Center, when his new team (Cleveland Cavaliers) plays his old team (Minnesota Timberwolves) Saturday night.

"You mean when I get killed?" Love said, shrugging.

Obviously Love was going for the modern, sports-and-culture slang definition of the otherwise shocking word -- getting killed these days means getting "slammed," criticized or most of all booed. It's meant, er, all in good fun, of course. And generally a frenzied crowd booing lustily falls under the sticks-and-stones category we learned about as kids, when names never used to hurt us, back before this age of feeeelings.

Love has moved on from Minnesota and his three All-Star selections, and two all-NBA berths, even if some folks back there have not. A harsh welcome-back seems all but assured, especially after Wolves coach and president Flip Saunders went out of his way to talk about it, five weeks early, when his team was headed to Cleveland.

"Minnesota people are pretty loyal. You turn on Minnesota, they don't forgive you," Saunders said then. "So I think people probably appreciated him while he was here. But you leave under the terms that he did, just the way Minnesota people are, they're not pretty forgiving along those lines."

Take it from someone who lived there for 24 years -- those Upper Midwest fans generally are less boisterous than elsewhere, their proverbial "Minnesota nice" more likely to slip into a passive-aggressive coolness than to come strong with an edge. They'll surely make an exception Saturday for Love -- the team's game-operations crew already was getting cute -- but it won't be anything he hasn't heard before.

Probably not even close.

"When we played at Oregon, people they were cursing at my family. Throwing things, death threats and everything," Love recalled. This was back in January 2008, when UCLA played the Ducks in Eugene, and it was ugly enough to generate a Sports Illustrated story.

In the midst of his lone college basketball season -- all because Love, who had grown up and starred at Lake Oswego (Ore.) High, opted to play for the Bruins -- some Oregon fans went crazy. Somebody got Love's cell phone number and its voicemail filled up with so much bile, he cancelled the service. His parents, his sister Karen, his grandmother and his uncle Mike (of Beach Boys fame) were pelted with trash and profanity. "It was the grossest display of humanity I've ever been involved with," said Stan Love, Kevin's father and a former hoops star at the school. He vowed that night never to return to his alma mater.

The NBA schedule allows no such prerogatives, so assuming Love is healthy, he'll be back on the floor at Target Center on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET on League Pass) and taking the best-worst that Wolves fans can give them. Count on a significantly different vibe from the one seven years ago, when another statistically fascinating, All-Star power forward named Kevin made his return.

Kevin Garnett didn't even play that night -- whatever his physical ailment at the time, it very likely was the emotions that kept him in street clothes and, for the game, in the locker room -- when he and the Boston Celtics visited the Twin Cities in February 2008. He had endured 12 seasons in Minnesota, leading the Wolves to eight playoff appearances and establishing himself as the franchise's best player ever and an all-time NBA great. That building was all about class that night, the standing ovation, the video tribute, the genuine love.

Love's return won't generate the same response. His stay was half as long and nowhere near as successful. Minnesota went 153-323 in Love's six seasons there, never making the playoffs and feeding skepticism about his flashy numbers and individual accolades.

The real problems, though, were much the same as during Garnett's stay: historically poor management decisions, not enough help on the court and something of an intractable, country-club culture undercutting any player's or players' intensity or urgency. Love chafed at the Wolves' losing, at four head coaches in six years and at former GM David Kahn's frequently expressed view that Love really wasn't a franchise player.

That came to a head in 2012 when Kahn, a bad hire and awkward at best in his player relations, declined (with owner Glen Taylor's blessing) to offer Love a full, five-year, maximum-salary contract extension. Instead, Love signed a four-year, $62 million deal with the option to leave after three, which led directly to his trade to Cleveland in August.

That $18 million snub is looking like the best thing Minnesota could have done for Love. If he hasn't already, he should send Kahn and Taylor a pair of really big fruit baskets for helping, finally, to brighten both his short- and long-term futures.

Five weeks ago, Love got 20 points and 10 rebounds in the Cavaliers' blowout of his former team at Quicken Loans Arena. Young Andrew Wiggins, the centerpiece of the Wolves-Cavs trade, scored 27 points but was a minus-25 in the game to Love's plus-23.

Cleveland's record after that one, 17-10, still stands as its high point this season. The Cavs lost 10 of their next 12 games and seemed on the verge of implosion, cratering at 19-20 during LeBron James' two-week sitdown to soothe his back and a knee (and maybe some emotions). Coach David Blatt was rumored to be on the brink, and Love got benched for the fourth quarter of a loss at Phoenix.

Now, though, they're exhaling, riding a nine-game winning streak after Friday's home win against Sacramento. The recent acquisitions of center Timofey Mozgov and guards Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith have been a balm, James is reinvigorated and Kyrie Irving -- without James in the game -- went off for 55 points against Portland Wednesday.

Love's numbers, frankly, have been meager during the streak: 13.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, while shooting 34.9 percent overall and 28.2 percent on 3-pointers. He has averaged 11.9 shots, down considerably from the 18.5 he got last season in Minnesota, and he'll be getting the whole week off for All-Star break this year, failing to land a spot as an East reserve.

But the pressure is off him and the team for now. Love and Co. still have 35 games and most of three months to get his role and production spruced up for the playoffs and, yes, there will be playoffs, his first ever. He still has the opt-out in his contract if things zag rather than zig, and there's always the summer of 2016 if he prefers.

Then there's the alternative, what could have been were Love still in Minnesota. He'd either be taking grief every day over his impending freedom or he'd be locked into this season and two more with an operation that rarely gets out of its own way.

Fans in Minnesota, patient for so long, got another helping of hope in the form of No. 1 picks Wiggins and 2013's Anthony Bennett. Saunders and Taylor have re-started the clock once more, while sending off the second-best player in franchise history.

Wiggins might wind up being the Wolves' first Rookie of the Year and Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad have had their precocious moments. But Love's former team -- beset by injuries (Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin) -- has gone hard into the Jahlil Okafor sweepstakes, sitting on the NBA's bottom at 8-37. There is a same-old feel to 2014-15, like so many seasons before.

All of which is to say, people at Target Center -- if they're not going to stand or clap Saturday night for the big guy who'll be back -- ought to be completely silent. They should have booed themselves hoarse by now over what Love left behind only halfway to Garnett's partly squandered stay.

Target Center's worst? Kevin Love won't hear it Saturday, he lived it.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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