One by one, Kevin Love recites the weaknesses that everyone expected to prevent him from becoming an elite player in the NBA.
It started with doubts that the doughy UCLA freshman wouldn’t be able to create his own shot against taller, stronger, more skilled defenders in the pros. The list only grew from there.
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”They said I wouldn’t have success in the league. They also said I wouldn’t be able to shoot. They also said I wouldn’t be able to score down low, get to the line, this, that or the other,” Love said. ”I’m going to do whatever it takes and I’m going to keep continuing to prove people wrong my whole career.”
One by one, Love is laying those doubts to rest, carrying the Minnesota Timberwolves into playoff contention and putting himself in the MVP conversation in the process.
Love is averaging 25.5 points and 13.7 rebounds this season and leads the NBA in minutes played. He’s been even better in the last three games against two of the league’s other top power forwards.
He had 42 points and 10 boards against LaMarcus Aldridge in a win at Portland on Saturday, 39 points and 17 rebounds in a win over Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday and 29 points and 16 boards against the Blazers on Wednesday in the win that put the Wolves in the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff field.
”Kevin is putting up NBA2K numbers right now,” Wolves swingman Martell Webster said, referring to the video game. ”It is crazy. Kid is playing out of his mind.”
LeBron James in Miami, Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City and reigning MVP Derrick Rose in Chicago get most of the publicity when talk about the MVP comes up, and deservedly so. Their teams have the three best records in the league and are primed for championship runs.
But what Love is doing with a team that has been a laughing stock of the league for the last five years is certainly noteworthy.
”The more we win, the more that stuff’s going to get taken care of, the individual accolades,” Love said. ”For me, I’m not really thinking about that. I’m just going out there, playing and trying to help this team win.”
While wunderkind point guard Ricky Rubio is showing signs of hitting the rookie wall after an electric start and No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams is still finding his way, Love has stepped forward to give the young Wolves MVP-like leadership and production in every way imaginable.
Clutch situations? How about his buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat the Clippers in Los Angeles on Jan. 20 or his 13 fourth-quarter points to snap a 16-game losing streak to the Trail Blazers last weekend?
Versatility? He won the 3-point shootout during All-Star weekend and has buried 13 of his last 23 shots from behind the arc while continuing to dominate the glass.
Team success? The Timberwolves went 32-132 over the previous two seasons and haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004. Now they have won eight of their last 11 games and are 9-2 against Houston, Dallas, Portland and San Antonio after going 2-57 against those four over the previous four seasons.
”I think it’s worthy of him, but usually that’s going to be based on how much success the team has,” coach Rick Adelman said of the MVP talk. ”He certainly should be mentioned. His statistics and the fact that we’re doing better, he deserves to be talked about in that area.”
It’s been a fast rise for a player many scouts projected as a workmanlike grinder when he came out of school in 2008. He struggled with his shooting as a rookie and a hand injury caused him to miss the first 20 games in 2009-10.
Still, Wolves president David Kahn chose to ship Al Jefferson to Utah and keep Love in the fold in Minnesota, a decision that is paying off now.
Love shot 41.7 percent from 3-point range and averaged 20.2 points and an NBA-leading 15.2 rebounds last season, but still was dismissed in some circles as a player putting up great numbers on a bad team.
This year there is no such argument. Love reported to camp 25 pounds lighter, armed with a step-back jumper and a nifty little flip shot he can use against bigger and stronger defenders.
”The one thing you’re seeing from Kevin is the last few years, every year he has improved a part of his game,” Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. ”I think he came into this league as a rebounder and a passer and that was the focus, keeping him off the boards.
”He’s become an unbelievable perimeter shooter. … So with his ability to handle the ball, score in the post, shoot the 3, pass the ball, it makes it really a challenge to guard him. Really there’s not a lot of weaknesses on the offensive end of the floor.”
The questions about his game did play a factor in his negotiation of a new contract, when the Wolves resisted Love’s request for a five-year deal. The team wanted to save its one-time maximum contract to use down the road, so Love signed a four-year contract with an opt-out clause after three seasons.
Now, at 23 years old, it seems the only question remaining for Love is how far he can take these Wolves. Not just this season, but in the years to come.
”He’s playing amazing,” Rubio said. ”I think the 3-point shot contest gave him more (confidence). He’s doing unbelievable work, fighting for everything and giving us victories.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this story.
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