Kevin Love has a point guard's vision, quarterback's arm
Always a deft outlet passer, Kevin Love has improved as a playmaker to become even more well-rounded.
By PHIL ERVINFS North
MINNEAPOLIS -- If not for his parents, Kevin Love may have made some youth football coach in Lake Oswego, Ore., a very happy man. As it was, Stan and Karen Love refused to let their son engage in the sport, instead pushing him toward the game his dad played professionally for four years.
So when the Timberwolves' increasingly spectacular power forward launches one of those laser-beam outlet passes the length of the floor and hits Corey Brewer in stride for an easy two, it's not with the accuracy of a former gridiron signal-caller.
Just the precision of a young man currently poised to rank as one of the best-rounded basketball players in a generation.
"My parents never let me play football," said Love, 25. "They said basketball's where you're gonna get the job done, and hey, I guess they were right."
The understatement of this young hoops season? Could be.
With each passing game, Love's numbers reach new levels of sumptuousness. In Friday's victory over Dallas, he finished two helpers short of a triple-double and became the first NBA player to average at least 27 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists through a team’s first six games of a season. Sunday night in Los Angeles, he tallied 18 points and eight rebounds in the highest-scoring quarter in franchise history and finished with 25 and 13 as the Timberwolves beat the Lakers at the Staples Center for the first time since 2005.
Since the 1985-86 season, two NBA players have accumulated 180 or more points, 100 or more rebounds and 30 or more assists through the first seven games of a season. Kevin Love, in 2013-14, is one of them.
The first was former Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett in 1999-00.
"He has so much court presence," teammate Kevin Martin said of Love. "Everyone is going to take their best shot at him. He opens up the game a little bit, and that’s what we need."
The rebounding was present almost immediately after Love spent a year at UCLA and was drafted fifth overall in 2008. The scoring came along a little more gradually, spiking in 2011-12 when Love dropped 26 per game to finish fourth in the league.
Then came last year: the knuckle pushups, the broken digits, and the arthroscopic knee surgery that kept him out of 64 games.
He came back with a bitter vengeance he exhibits on the court but isn't wont to discuss off of it. President of basketball operations Flip Saunders and coach Rick Adelman asked Love to channel some of it into becoming a better facilitator, citing his keen awareness and remarkably soft hands for a person standing 6-foot-10 and weighing more than 240 pounds.
Hard to believe even those two basketball minds could've expected what's transpired thus far. Probably not Love, either, even though he spent the preseason stressing he needed to become more of a playmaker.
"I've finally spoken it into existence," Love said. "It's happening now. I think it's just a product of -- even though I've been scoring the ball at a high rate -- not having to carry so much of the load on the offensive end. It makes the game more fun when you're able to get your teammates going as well."
Going into Monday night's matchup with the Clippers, Love led NBA power forwards with 33 assists (4.7 per game, second on the team only to Rubio). His three assists Sunday were his fewest since Minnesota blew out Oklahoma City in the second game of the season.
Courtesy of Love's ability to tear down rebounds, turn and quickly find Brewer, Martin or point guard Ricky Rubio on the break -- usually with a toss that eclipses at least half the length of the court, sometimes almost all of it -- the Timberwolves are second in the NBA with 19 fast-break points per contest.
It's a product first of vision, then the outlet man's decision-making after Love gets him the ball, Adelman said.
"You've got to be aware of how much is a guy out ahead? How much is he not?" Adelman said. "But you don't have to throw it the length of the court. You can get it out to half-court, and that's what we want to try to do is get the ball up the floor quicker. Step two, now, what are you gonna do when you get it up there quicker? Are you gonna force the issue, or are you gonna make the other team guard you?"
Brewer, one of the NBA's most impactful transition threats, has been the primary beneficiary of Love's recent distribution. The majority of Brewer's 14.3 points per game have stemmed from a Love assist, generally of the highlight-reel-heave variety.
Perhaps their prettiest connection came in the first quarter Sunday when Love snagged a defensive rebound under the basket, spun around 180 degrees and lofted a perfectly-placed, 85-foot bomb. Los Angeles defender Jodie Meeks was stride-for-stride with Brewer, but the ball dropped into a spot where only the Minnesota small forward could catch it.
(Reads like a football recap, no?)
Brewer swooped in for a lay-in upon reception, but Meeks was whistled for a clear-path foul first.
"The guy can throw a chest pass 100 yards," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "I mean, he should be an NFL quarterback; he could throw chest passes to the receivers."
But he can also throw interceptions. In the third quarter of last week's loss to Golden State, Love saw a streaking teammate and chucked the ball down the middle of the floor, but Andre Iguodala sniffed it out and, shortly after, hit a 3 at the other end.
Love, then, has to pick his spots.
"I still get caught," said Love, who as of Monday afternoon led the league in rebounding and ranked second in scoring. "Like against (the Warriors), I got too ambitious and threw one right to (Iguodala)."
Iguodala, one of the league's better defenders, knew the pass was coming. As Love continues to hook up with teammates in transition, more opponents are going to make a concerted effort to take away that aspect of Minnesota's offense.
A seven-game sample size is also a statistics-skewer; Love hasn't averaged more than 2.9 assists per game in any of his four full NBA seasons, and there's still plenty of time for his current average to drop.
But there's only so much an adversary can do, short of completely give up on offensive rebounds and sprint back once a shot is fired.
Love's prowess as a long-ball passer reminds Carlisle of former star center Wes Unseld, to whom Love's middle name of Wesley pays tribute. The 6-foot-7 center and Stan Love played together for the Baltimore Bullets during the 1971-72 and 1972-73 seasons.
Also a highly capable open-court distributor, Unseld ranks 24th all-time in career assists among NBA big men.
"I remember Wes Unseld," Carlisle said. "Unfortunately, that’s how old I am, and I mean Love is an equal to him in terms of his ability to outlet the ball quickly. It’s a phenomenal skill."
Love attributes it to playing youth hoops on his brother's team against players that were three years older than him. He couldn't shoot effectively on a 10-foot hoop, so he launched shots chest-pass-style during his early years.
"I'd make the shot at a very, very high rate," Love said, "so that's how that touch kind of came about."
For his part, Brewer actually did play a little wide receiver at Portland (Tenn.) High School once upon a time. The lessons in timing and hand-eye coordination gleaned then certainly don't hurt now when Love fires a pass his direction.
"When he gets the rebound," Brewer said, "I just run."