Love stakes claim to top PF with 51 points
A most improved player award, a rebounding title, two All-Star appearances.
Kevin Love has been piling up the accolades and accomplishments over the past season and a half, steadily working his way up the ladder of the NBA's best power forwards.
With a jaw-dropping, 51-point performance in a double-overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night, the 23-year-old Minnesota Timberwolves star may have staked a definitive claim to the title of best power forward in the game.
''He's incredible, man,'' said Wolves guard J.J. Barea, who had quite a game himself with a triple-double. ''He impresses me every day, the way he works. I think that's how he works so hard every game. He's shooting the ball great, he's rebounding, he's doing it all for us. He's impressive.
''Everybody knows, though. He's letting everybody know the last two years how good he is, this year even more.''
Because he can't jump over a car like Blake Griffin, doesn't play in the media capital of the world like Amare Stoudemire, didn't join Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in Miami like Chris Bosh and doesn't have the prototype body like LaMarcus Aldridge, the recognition has been a little slower to come for Love. Scoring 51 in a game is the kind of flashy performance that can change that in a hurry.
Missing his starting point guard, starting center and best scorer off the bench, Love went toe-to-toe and shot-for-shot with Thunder All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the best team in the Western Conference. He hit 7 of his 11 3-pointers, including one with 1 second to go in regulation that forced the first overtime.
He then scored Minnesota's first 11 points of overtime to put the exhausted, short-handed Wolves in position for what would have been a stunning victory at the end of a 13-day, seven-game road trip.
Durant and Westbrook - who finished with 40 and 45 points respectively - proved to be too much to handle in the second overtime, and the Thunder outlasted Love and the Wolves to drop them to 2-6 since Ricky Rubio went down with a season-ending knee injury on March 9.
''Kevin - not that Kevin (Durant) but the other Kevin (Love) - made some big shots and this Kevin (Durant) as well made some tougher shots,'' said Westbrook, who is close friends with Love dating to their days in college together at UCLA. ''It was a fun game.''
The 51 points were a franchise record, and the first time a Timberwolves player has scored at least 50 in a game.
''It'd mean a lot more in a win,'' Love said. ''I had a good rhythm, my teammates were hitting me. I wish I would've hit a few shots in that second overtime.''
It was just the latest in an incredible month, and an incredible season, for Love. The fourth-year forward is averaging 30.9 points and 13.4 rebounds in 12 games in March. And what makes him even more unique, is the 6-foot-10 Love is shooting 46.8 percent on 3-pointers, making him an extremely tough cover for most power forwards in the league who prefer to bang on the boards.
''His ability to shoot the ball has changed up his whole game,'' Clippers point guard Chris Paul said. ''You've got guards who attack in transition, he stops at the line. He's got a great combination inside-outside.''
The Thunder saw that on Friday night. With center Nikola Pekovic back in Minnesota with ankle injuries, Love grabbed six of his 14 rebounds on the offensive end, creating second-chance opportunities for a team that desperately needed them. He also hit his first five 3-pointers of the game and added his usual array of baby hook shots and pump-fake drives to the basket.
''He's an All-Star,'' Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. ''He made big plays and shots. They weren't all easy shots. Even though they were tough 3s, he still had to make them. He makes them look easy.''
The Wolves, who had lost 132 games the previous two seasons, were right in the thick of the playoff race when Rubio went down, and have since dropped 3 1/2 games behind Houston for the eighth and final postseason spot with just 17 games to play. Love is used to seeing his team fold down the stretch - the Wolves lost the final 15 games last season to seal former coach Kurt Rambis' fate.
He's doing everything he can to make sure that doesn't happen again. The Wolves (23-26) may not have Rubio, and could be missing Pekovic and Michael Beasley (toe) again on Sunday against the Denver Nuggets.
But they still have Love at power forward, and that's more than any other team can say.
''Regardless of who we play, we always feel like we can beat them,'' Love said. ''We're down, not out. We're going to continue to keep fighting.''
AP Sports Writer Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.