All-Star friendships set aside on the court

LOS ANGELES – Just two nights ago their uniforms were the same.

Just two nights ago, they stood in the periphery, laughing and elbowing each other as Kevin Durant was named the MVP of the NBA All-Star Game. Just two nights ago, they looked less like men being paid obscene amounts of money to beat each other and more like two little boys with a secret.

Just two nights ago, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin were teammates, and what concerned them most wasn’t an upcoming matchup or the mechanics of their games – instead, the two were making fun of Charles Barkley.

“We were kind of going back and forth on there, laughing and having fun with it,” Love said. “We were keeping it light.”

Light was a far cry from Tuesday night, from the blocking and shoving of the Timberwolves’ 109-97 win over the Clippers. Because in the haze of All-Star weekend, lines blur and tensions ease. It’s three days of new alliances and old friendships put on hold throughout the season. As the television cameras roll and the lights flash, there are more than stunts and celebrities and game scores that look like mathematical errors. There are young players meeting established veterans, opponents for once getting close enough to see just what makes each other tick. It’s a sort of suspended reality, or at least an alternate one in which the teams jostling for a playoff spot become allies in some strange, star-studded struggle.

Ricky Rubio, who played in the rookie-sophomore game last weekend, met Steve Nash for the first time, the man who’s defined the position the young guard is now flipping and wrangling into his own style. It, like many such meetings, was more about the image, the idea, than the substance (“I only know him for two minutes, but he seems nice,” Rubio said), but they’re the stuff that sustains the novelty of All-Star Weekend. They may be the stuff of superficial pleasantries, but that glimpse of Nash shaking Rubio’s hand or patting him on the back – that sells.

Some players, though, can make a deeper impression. Love said that this year, he was most struck by Chris Paul and the way the Clippers’ guard comported himself all weekend. Love said when the Eastern Conference cut the West’s lead at the end of the game, he could tell that “something clicked” with Paul, and he credited him with leading the West to its 152-149 victory.

“I liked the way he handled himself,” Love said of Paul. “I liked the type of pro he was. Even at the All-Star Game, he kept the attitude that he was trying to win. I definitely think that Chris is one of those guys (I admire).”

And therein lies the irony of the All-Star Game. “It’s funny we’re here now,” Love said, and it’s true. Admiring Paul, even sharing a purpose with him, was nothing out of the ordinary last weekend. But every facet of Paul’s game – the intensity, the focus, the killer drive to win – turned against Love and the Timberwolves on Tuesday, when he finished the night with 27 points despite the loss. So enjoy the win, Timberwolves, but Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are no longer on your side. And they won’t be for the rest of the season.

“It was huge,” Love said of the win. “They had their full team, and they’re a team that’s fighting for a playoff spot as well, right up there.”

It was inevitable that things returned to reality on Tuesday, the reality of a back-to-back-to-back, to limited practices and a frantic pace. But for that reality to start with a 12-point win over the Clippers proves that it doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t have to be formulaic or predictable, as the Timberwolves showed in the form of Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley, who scored 27 points each off the bench. Williams shot 90 percent from the field, including one jumper that he shot while being pushed to the ground by Kenyon Martin.

You know you’re having a good night when you can look up from flat on the hardwood and see your shot arc through the basket.

“Coming off the bench, I was just trying to get the ball and score every time,” Williams said. “Getting to score like that, it’s pretty hard.”

But perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the Timberwolves’ win was that it happened without Love, who missed the entire fourth quarter with a rib contusion, and in spite of Paul and Griffin. It happened as the Clippers’ guard and forward hit the shots and made the plays that everyone in the Staples Center expected them to make. Instead of beating the Clippers at the buzzer without both Paul and Caron Butler, as the Timberwolves did in January, they beat them at full strength, in such a way that fans coursed toward the exits with a minute remaining.

“It sure makes a big statement, I think, for us,” Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. “This is a very good team… If we’re going to make any kind of noise at all and move forward, we’ve got win against good teams on the road. This is a big statement for us.”

As exhilarating as Luke Ridnour’s buzzer-beater last Wednesday against Utah was in the moment, as much as it set the tone for the All-Star Break and the beginning of the season’s second half, it had the potential for repercussions. On a team like this, young, with just a fledgling notion of what it is to win, a big victory like that could have taken on too much significance. Only Love, Rubio and Derrick Williams were in Orlando for the weekend. The rest of the players had five days off, to replay that floater in their minds, to get ever more confident and dangerously too comfortable in their ability to win. But where just a month ago that might have been their undoing, this team seems to have matured at a pace far faster than most expected.

But going forward, Tuesday’s win – or last Wednesday’s, or the previous Sunday’s – means no less than the last loss before it. With a tough road schedule in March, the Timberwolves are in for as much a mental challenge as a physical one. The warm-up is over. The suspended reality of All-Star Weekend is in the past, too. And as far away as April might seem in snowy Minnesota, this is when things really begin to count.

“Every game is a big game going forward,” Love said. “It could mean playoffs or not. For us, it means to live in the present and not think a game or two or three ahead. Really, I know that sounds cliché and something that everybody seems to say, but that’s really how we have to think about it and how we have to go about our season.”

Maybe this is a time to resort to clichés. Maybe that’s better than the vagueness, the questions, better than wrangling what a win should mean to a team like this. Because for the Timberwolves, this has been and will be a season of ups and downs, in which one win can mean little but matter a great deal.

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