Love takes center stage in Timberwolves’ win over Grizzlies

Kevin Love is on pace to become the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo in 1975-76 to average 26 points, 12-plus rebounds and four or more assists in a single campaign.

Ann Heisenfelt/Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Kevin Love’s eyes widened as soon as Flip Saunders showed him the list.

20. 10. 5. There are a select few that have averaged that many points, rebounds and assists in a season.

Kareem. Bird. Wilt. A guy named Garnett.

Michael Jordan’s not among the 16 names on it. Neither is Magic Johnson.

But Saunders, the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations, insists his inherited, disgruntled star can join them. He’d much prefer that happens here as opposed to another market.

When Love does what he did Wednesday night at the Target Center, it’s plain to see Saunders’ prediction has legs. Where they’ll take Love is up for discussion, and it’s become a central NBA personnel topic both locally and nationally.

It took the versatile power forward 448 NBA games — five years and 53 days from his pro debut — to notch his first triple-double. Since then, he’s churned them out on a regular basis.

The 20-10-5 season won’t happen this year. Neither will the playoffs for a team many think Love is intent on leaving after next season.

Timberwolves 102, Grizzlies 88

But he moved closer to that statistical echelon in a 102-88 victory at the Target Center.

Averaging 26 points, 12.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, Love nabbed the third triple-double of his career — and this season — and his second in the past four games. His 24 points, 16 boards and 10 assists allowed Minnesota to dent Memphis’ playoff hopes while giving 12,009 fans a little something to smile about.

"It means that I’m, I guess, more well-rounded," Love said. "Between coach (Rick Adelman) and Flip, they asked a lot out of me at the beginning of the year, being able to . . . facilitate and pass the ball."

The tenacious rebounding’s been there since his rookie year. It was on display Wednesday as he battled the staunch frontcourt of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

The point production came along not long after. Wednesday, Love made 9 of 15 shots, hit 2 of 5 3-point attempts, and made 4 of 5 free-throw tries, bringing his career scoring average to 19 points an outing.

But he’s continued to toss outlet pass after outlet pass this season, nearly doubling his previous assist average despite defense’s knowledge of its potency.

He hit Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin with a couple of floor-length helpers Wednesday, part of a 53.1 percent shooting night for Minnesota. They’re risky, he’ll admit.

"Some of them caught my breath a couple times tonight," Adelman said. "I wasn’t sure where they were going."

Cracked Love, when told of Adelman’s words: "Yeah, me too."

But they’re a central part of honoring the goals he and the front office set forth during that offseason sit-down.

"The fact that I’ve been able to do that is nice," Love said. "It’s just as gratifying scoring the ball as it is making a good pass."

Doing so deftly on this night, he helped Minnesota (37-37) stave off mathematical elimination from the playoffs while dropping Memphis — 44-31 and coached by Staples, Minn., native Dave Joerger — into the West’s eighth and final postseason slot for the moment.

Love first cracked the triple-double barrier Feb. 22 at Utah. March 28 against the Lakers, he did it again. Nine other times in his career, he’s come within one or two assists of the infamous single-game achievement.

All but one of them occurred this season.

"I got stuck on nine a few times," quipped Love, who’s on pace to become the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo in 1975-76 to average 26 points, 12-plus rebounds and four or more assists in a single campaign.

Yet even while discussing his latest feat with local media, Love kept up his habit of avoiding eye contact. Since his team fell out of realistic playoff contention, he’s gone back to the salty, distant communicator who ripped into the franchise for not giving him his due last season.

Rumors run rampant Love will opt out of the final year of his contract before next season and pursue another city in free agency — Los Angeles, New York and Chicago are among the most popular gossip subjects.

And that’s if the Timberwolves don’t trade him first. Saunders remains intent on keeping him; Minnesota can offer him about $26 million more than any other suitor.

And one of the former coach’s selling points is that list he handed him last summer. Love’s getting closer and closer to reaching it here, so why not stay and finish the job?

That question will be answered as soon as this summer or as late as next spring.

But for the third night since the calendar turned, at least, Love’s current market can marvel. Not since Kevin Garnett’s 19 triple-doubles has this place seen such well-rounded effectiveness.

It can be enjoyed while it lasts, then recalled whenever it’s gone.

Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter