Breaking Down Love's Game With SI's Alan Shipnuck

by Mark Remme
Web Editor

Breaking Down Love's Game With SI's Alan Shipnuck

Sitting inside the LifeTime Fitness Training Center film room, Sports Illustrated senior writer Alan Shipnuck hunkered down with Wolves forward Kevin Love last month hoping to dive inside the mind of who he calls “probably the most unique player in the NBA.” The goal wasn’t to simply analyze Love’s game—he wanted to understand it. He wanted to dive inside Love’s mind and view the game as Love does, walking step-by-step through an NBA game during what is turning out to be Love’s best season yet.

So the two sat together in the film room, carved out more than an hour on Thursday, Nov. 22—an off-day sandwiched between home contests against the Clippers and Nets—and went play-by-play through Love’s 32-point, 15-rebound, eight-assist performance in a 116-108 win over Dallas on Nov. 8. It was one of Love’s 19 double-doubles in his first 20 games this season (the lone outlier being a 33-point, eight-rebound, six-assist effort against Cleveland on Nov. 13) and is essentially a small sample size of what Love has produced night in and night out this season.

[CLICK HERE to read Alan Shipnuck’s article on "How Love Puts Up Numbers Worthy Of Kareem, Wilt and Elgin."]

What Shipnuck took away from that sit-down was in a nutshell what makes Love such a revered player by coaches and peers around the league. The two-time All-Star showcased his self-deprecating, humorous personality mixed with his innate and through-provoking approach to the game in that film session, which Shipnuck displayed in his article in this week’s latest Sports Illustrated issue.

The article depicts the Mavericks game quarter-by-quarter highlighting specific moments in the game when Love made a particularly special impact or had a detailed description of his play.

It was an opportunity to put together a detailed account of what makes Kevin Love who he is.
“We went through [the game] in forensic detail, every possession he was part of and getting Kevin to talk about his craft and what he does,” Shipnuck said. “It was overwhelming—his athletic ability, a lot of his trickiness, a lot of his high-basketball IQ that defines his game. It’s interesting to hear in his words what—as a player—is developing, what he was thinking and what he was reacting to, and kind of trying to take a reader inside his game. Really, inside his mind—inside the huddle.”

If you watch Love on any given night, you’ll likely see him attack the basket inside the paint with those soft baby hooks or stretch the defense because of his ability to knock down 3-point shots. You’ll probably watch him nearly reach double-digit rebounds by the end of the first quarter, and this season he’s getting on opposing team’s scouting reports because of his passing both in transition and in half court sets.

But what makes him such an efficient rebounder?

If you ask coaches around the league, they’ll tell you Love is more than a handful on the glass and is as tough as anyone in basketball to keep off the boards. Sixers coach Brett Brown called Love and teammate Nikola Pekovic “two lumberjacks ready to knock your head off” when Philadelphia came through town this week. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle commented before that Nov. 8 game at Target Center on how gifted Love is in that department.

The thing that stuck out most for Shipnuck is Love’s methodical approach to rebounding. It is not the same every minute of every game. He develops a feel for who he is playing, what their tendencies are and what part of the game they’re in.

“The Mavs, Dirk [Nowitzki] isn’t a guy who is going to crash the boards. They were matched up a few times, and he gave him a little push with his fingertips and boom, he’s gone out of the play,” Shipnuck said. “Then there are guys like Shawn Marion who go to the glass a lot harder, getting into his body, checking him hard. Some of it is being aware of the personnel. A lot of it is, he used the word ‘energy.’ Reading the energy of the player. How that particular moment of the game, what are they bringing? He just has that innate sense for that.”

His shooting is league-wide scouting report material. Everyone knows Love will force bigs to defend on the perimeter because he’s able to step out and shoot from 3-point range. When he goes inside, he has the unique blend of finesses and toughness. There are few guys in the league who can pull down rebounds with that regularity while also being able to have that type of touch around the rim.

Love showed it again last night, collecting 42 points and 14 rebounds in his 21st double-double in 22 games to start the year. Dating back through 1985-86, no other player in the NBA has started the season with 21 double-doubles in 22 games.

A fascinating part of Shipnuck’s experience detailed that very snippet of Love’s game.

“There was one point we stopped the film, he was going for a tip-in and the ball was on his fingertips, and with his left hand he was man-handling [Samuel] Dalembert of the Mavs,” Shipnuck said. “And he had this line about how with one arm you’re a gladiator and with the other you’re a pianist.”

That perfectly showcases Love’s ability on the court and his personality all rolled into one. He’s a thought-provoking guy that can articulate his game in words. But his sense of humor also shined through.

At one point, the two stopped the film and joked about Love’s rebounding. Love might be one of the most valued rebounders in the game, but he doesn’t do it above the rim. He does it with positioning, reading the angles and getting early positioning to box out.

“It’s a position game—it’s not about out-jumping somebody,” Shipnuck said. “We stopped one and he was getting it, and I said, ‘forget about the rim, you barely made it to the orange.’ He was like, ‘Thanks, man.’ It was just a funny aside, and obviously the guy’s a superstar. He could be the MVP of the league this year. But he’s such a low-key guy…he doesn’t take himself too seriously.”

The rest of the league, however, has a different approach.

Shipnuck is stationed in California, while Sports Illustrated—based in New York—sends him around the country to take on stories like this one about Love. He flies tens of thousands of miles each year, so he knows the sports scene around the U.S.

And he said when it comes to Love’s ability, the secret’s been out for a while. Now, in this article, we get a little glimpse into why he’s so effective on the court.

“He’s kind of a player’s player and a coach’s player,” Shipnuck said. “They respect effort, the fundamentals, the unselfishness. Just the grit, I mean I would say there’s no way you can quantify it but he’s got to be the most respected player in the league, or very close to it, because he does so many things. He could probably lead the league in scoring easily if that was his goal, especially in the past he might not have had as much fire power around him. And he likes to shoot the ball, so you get respect for that. You get respect for giving up your body and going to war in the paint like he does, and he hits a lot of big shots. It kind of checks every box. Fans love to watch him play, and I think players really appreciate it and the coaches love him to death because he’s so fundamentally sound.”

He’s come a long way in his professional career, and there’s a lot of upside ahead.

“I followed him closely in college—he’s definitely grown up,” Shipnuck said. “He’s matured a lot. He’s still a young guy, but it’s impressive. He’s got a lot on his shoulders, but he seems to take it all in stride.”

For more news and notes on the team follow the Minnesota Timberwolves and Mark Remme on Twitter.

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