Wolves’ Love battling slump with hard work

MINNEAPOLIS – As the clock ticked to zero on the Timberwolves’ 111-107 win over Phoenix on Sunday, Kevin Love walked to the sideline and enveloped Shawn Respert in a hug.

This wasn’t just an “oh, hey, we won, let’s hug” sort of embrace. That’s hardly Love’s style. It was a pointed move after the power forward finished the night with 23 points and 18 rebounds on 40 percent shooting. It was a thank you.

Thank you for standing there, shot after shot, after practice, before practice, whenever. Thank you for watching, for talking and listening. Because that’s what Respert and the rest of the Timberwolves’ player development coaches do. That’s what they’ve done when players have struggled, when they’ve felt like Love feels now, proverbially banging his head against the wall. Last year, it was Wes Johnson logging those hours of basketball and conversations with Respert. This year, it’s Love, and so what if he’s a star? So what if he was the last person anyone expected would need extra work? He does, and he’s getting it, and for now, that’s all that matters.

But there’s a bigger question about all this, one that goes deeper than Love’s 18.7 points and 13.8 rebounds per game, deeper than his 35.4 percent shooting and 22.2 percent mark from long range. The question is why. The question is what spurred this and how long it will last and how bad it really is. If you get too caught up in the numbers, you can forget that a complex reason is buried down there, somewhere, an amalgamation of things that’s left Love frustrated and waiting for it all to get better.

This is the fall and early winter of 2012 for Kevin Love: Broken hand. Rumors about how said hand broke. Surprise early return. Sickness: food poising or flu or who knows what. Scathing article about the Timberwolves’ franchise leadership. Bruised thumb. Flu-like symptoms. Poked eye. And that’s just what the general public has seen and heard, to say nothing of the doubt and frustration it all drummed up behind closed doors and in Love’s head. Sprinkled throughout were the moments when he lost confidence in his shot, the games in which he’d get discouraged and pout, the days he’d wake and it would seem as if his right hand were made of stone, the practices in which he felt like he was shooting with the wrong fingers, the wrong mechanics, the wrong everything.

Through the end of 2012, that’s resulted in the lowest PER of his career, 18.1, along with the lowest true shooting percentage (46.3), offensive rebounding rate (10.8) and offensive rating (100). Love hasn’t played in enough games to qualify for any of the league leaderboards, but if he had, he’d be nowhere near the top of the scoring race, where Kobe Bryant is perched with 30.3 points per game. Love’s rebounding, though, would put him second overall behind Anderson Varejao. (With all those missed shots, he’d better be rebounding.) It’s a grim picture when you look at it that way, not in terms of the raw numbers, but in relation to Love’s career and the precedent he’s set, especially last year with 26.0 points per game.

Lately, Love has been staying after practice and taking pointers from the entire coaching staff, especially those involved with player development. He’s been analyzing his shot and breaking it down. Last week, Love, coach Rick Adelman, and player development coaches David Adelman and Respert met and watched film, and they all agreed that the forward was getting good shots, Love said, just that they were not, for some reason, going in.

“I’ve watched a lot of film,” Love said. “All my shots are great shots, and the shots around the rim – like easy layups or two- or three-footers – just haven’t fallen this year. In that regard it’s been really odd, and kind of a weird year. And, eventually, those are going to fall.”

But they’re not falling yet, not all the time. There are nights when it all seems right, nights like Saturday, and then the minute you think this is it, things are better, Love goes out and shoots 28.6 percent in Utah. The power forward knows consistency has been his calling card throughout his career, and now it’s fleeting; he’s had three games this season in which he’s scored in single digits after having not done so since March 13, 2011. In fact, he hasn’t had three single-digit scoring games in a season since 2009-10, when he had 13. That’s enough to cause at least a measure of alarm – more alarm, at least, than 18.7 points and 13.8 rebounds per game tends to warrant.

If it had just been the hand and the other minor setbacks, it would be easier to explain away. He’d be shooting after practice with Respert and Derrick Williams, just as he’s doing now, and he’d be getting better, bit by bit, just like he’s doing now, and we’d all think, Oh, look how hard Kevin is working, and isn’t it great his teammates are picking up the slack?

But it’s not just the hand. It’s the sense that Love was exhausted by last summer, a matter he discussed in training camp, and that he’s uneasy still with the team he’s supposed to be leading. It can feel like this is a cursed season for the power forward – it has been so far – with some curses coming by choice and others by happenstance. That, then, is a lot to contend with, a lot to regulate with the season flying by.

Throughout it all, Love has said the same thing, over and over: Eventually the shots are going to fall. They’ve always fallen, in fact, so they must fall again. He believes it. So does Adelman. Common sense says they’re right. Common sense says that Kevin Love has been an elite player for so long that it doesn’t all just disappear in a puff of smoke.

But that doesn’t make this any easier. That doesn’t stop Love from thinking about the struggles, from saying things like, “When you have two or three games in a row where you don’t shoot the ball particularly well, and the team is counting on you to be a big scoring threat and be the number one option,” and then trailing off a bit. He knows the expectations, and his own demands for himself are likely higher than any imposed from outside.

Love isn’t asking anyone to feel sorry for him. He’s not saying he came back too soon – his team needed him, and he was going to play as soon as possible – or making excuses. He’s just been unlucky, a bit, and unwise at times, and now he’s sorting it all out, as much in his mind as he is on the court.

“I feel like these guys, we forget that they’re not just basketball players,” Respert said. “They have personal lives. They’re normal human beings. They have struggles. Sometimes at the age they’re at, they don’t have the maturity.”

Love may make millions of dollars, may appear on TV every night in a basketball game or a commercial. But he’s a 24-year-old professional, and no amount of money or exposure is going to age him in such a way that he handles his struggles like a circumspect 40-year-old. Respert, a former player, understands better than most. He understands that Love’s happiness is linked to his game, that there could be other things factoring into this, too.

So Love talks. He shoots. He watches film. The accountability is there, which is something Respert has to stress with many players but not with Love. Love knows he can be the player who sways the game, that he sometimes must be the player who sways the game. And he’s learning, with every shot and every day, every gradual uptick and bad night that follows a good one, that this is going to take time.

“It’s just a little bit at a time,” Respert said. “It won’t happen overnight. He isn’t in the situation where he is now, struggling a little bit with his shot, that didn’t happen overnight. That took time to get to that point.”

Love wanted to start 2013 on the right note. He said as much on Dec. 31, but that didn’t happen. Wednesday was another frustrating game, the eighth time he’s shot below 30 percent. It was another night when he had to throw his hands up and wonder how the shots weren’t falling. And so it continues, this bumpy fifth season, and so Love’s mettle will continue to be tested.

He’s been great. He’s now just good, and good can seem like terrible when you know you can be great. That’s a nasty web to be tangled in.

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