Love solidifying spot among NBA’s elite

Timberwolves forward Kevin Love is fourth in the NBA in scoring at 25.0 points per game and second in the league in rebounding at 12.9 boards per game. 

Brace Hemmelgarn/Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

MINNEAPOLIS — After the Timberwolves’ victory Wednesday against New Orleans — their fifth win in six games — Kevin Love abandoned his usual postgame spot for a less luxurious locale.

Rather than cool down in the tub while pumping some music through his ear buds, Love headed straight to Minnesota’s Target Center basement weight room and executed a few lifts.

"I’m just weird like that sometimes," Love said. "Sometimes I just want to get in some extra work."

Weird, workaholic or whatever, that line of thinking is working. Both for Love and for the team he currently calls his own.

The accolades and metrics have been repeated ad nauseam in the past week — All-Star starter, Team USA pillar, the NBA’s No. 4 scorer and No. 2 rebounder, uniquely versatile stretch four, chaser of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton when it comes to all-around awe-worthy NBA seasons.

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Love is on the record as considering himself an elite, world-class basketball player. His coach has a hard time disagreeing with him.

But at the rate Love’s going, the rest of the hoops world can’t help but take full notice, too.

Every coach that comes through town lauds Love and the problems he’s about to present in that night’s game. USA Basketball expressed similar praise when it welcomed with open arms Love’s commitment last summer to play in the 2014 FIBA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

"What more can you ask of a guy?" Suns coach Jeff Hornacek asked. "He does it all."

Said Oklahoma City head man Scott Brooks, a former Timberwolves player: "It’s impressive that he just keeps getting better . . . he’s definitely putting up MVP-like numbers."

And Dallas coach Rick Carlisle: "He’s a statistical machine. . . . He’s inside and outside and really all over the place."

This 25-point, 12.9-rebound, 4.1-assist season isn’t some explosively new phenomenon. Love’s coming-out party has been a lengthy, steady one, but his 2011-12 showing produced similar numbers (save for two less assists an outing) and solidified him as one of the game’s best.

Then came last year, when Love played 18 games due to a hand injury, drew the scorn of fans and media and eventually blew up in a famed Yahoo Sports article expressing his displeasure with the franchise.

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Wounds that include missing out on a max deal take a long time to heal. But in the past week, at least, Love has been nothing but grateful to the team and community he’s a part of — for now.

"We went through some ups and downs last year, obviously," Love said. "But for them to really come out and support this team — not only myself, but the entire team — the’€™ve been awesome."

Then again, Love’s given them reason to be.

A potent rebounder since his rookie season and an increasingly effective scorer, Love’s added a deft passing acumen to his arsenal and continued to sculpt his body. That’s the product of a stringent offseason workout program and continued in-season workouts, including those sessions immediately after games when he doesn’t have any other pressing obligations.

The stats may look a lot like 2011-12, but the player generating them is remarkably different, Adelman said.

"Two years ago, he had a great year, and I think last year was disappointing for everybody," Adelman said. "This year, he’s came in, and I think he’s a different player than two years ago. He’s putting up almost the same numbers, but he’s passing the ball better. There’s more confidence; he knows he’s gonna be on the floor for 36 minutes, and he’s a player who can score 12 points in two minutes.

"I think people respect him. He’s on the Olympic team. He’s been an All-Star. I think everybody knows what kind of player he is."

But with Love’s popularity have come increasingly audible murmurs of trade talk before his contract expires ahead of the 2015-16 season. There’s a perception he remains ultimately unhappy here and sees greener pastures on the West Coast he called home while growing up.

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President of basketball operations Flip Saunders says he adamantly plans on keeping Love around for the long haul. He may have had some help in the past month from the folks who buy tickets and merchandise.

"I think I’€˜ve worked very hard throughout my entire career," said Love, the fifth overall pick in the 2008 draft. "I worked really hard this last offseason. I told the fans that I would, and hopefully my play this year has, you know, obviously helped them vote for me and . . . it’€™s hard to put into words.

"I’€™ve definitely come a long ways, but without the fans I wouldn’€™t be where I’€™m at today."

And the franchise, which finally got over the .500 hump Wednesday and is in position to break a nine-year playoff drought, wouldn’t be where it’s at without Love.

If it weren’t for another guy named Kevin in Oklahoma City consistently racking up 30 points a night, Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio would be already be campaigning to see Love earn player of the year honors.

"He’s had an unbelievable season," Rubio said. "Putting up numbers to get MVP votes, too — well, with Kevin Durant playing like that, it’s different — but he’s putting up numbers and helping us to win games."

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