Love’s return was bound to pay dividends

MINNEAPOLIS – No knock on Kevin Love, but that was supposed to go well. 
Those were the Kings, and the Timberwolves were on a five-game losing streak with something to prove. Those were the Kings, who went into the game 4-9. Those were the Kings, and to lose in Sacramento would be to declare some sort of alarm surrounding a team that started the season 5-2.
Combine all that with Love’s dramatic glove-toss at the end of Saturday’s game and his decision to go without the offending handwear on Tuesday and it would seem that the Timberwolves had the circumstances – a downright bad opponent and the removal of a hindrance to Love’s game – to get a win. It’s a good thing they did.
I don’t know how much I’m buying the whole “Kevin Love didn’t wear the glove, and that’s why he notched the 16th 20-20 game of his career” argument. To do so would be to take away from what Love brings on a nightly basis. It’s no surprise he returned last Wednesday with 34 points and 14 rebounds. Of course he did; with his talent and the excitement surrounding his comeback, it would have been a shock for him not to have done so.
And then it was 24 and 13 in Portland. Then 15 and 15 in Oakland. If it were nearly any other player, this past week would have been shocking, after a summer spent at the Olympics and five weeks out with a broken hand. If the outcomes had been any different, too, rather than three straight losses, perhaps those stats would have seemed as impressive as they really are.
But they didn’t, somehow.
It’s Kevin Love, and going into Tuesday, the Timberwolves were 0-3 with him, 5-4 without. And so glove-throwing becomes mandatory. Defense of the fact that he was ready to return becomes necessary. Doesn’t quite make sense, does it?
That’s why Tuesday was so impressive. It wasn’t Love’s debut, and there was no special significance to the night on which, like any other, the Timberwolves were hoping for a win. And so on this completely humdrum evening in the Sleep Train Arena (that joke is never going to get old), Love’s 23-point, 24-rebound performance was the best of his young season. His 21 defensive rebounds marked a new career high and the best of any player in the NBA this month, and the 23-24 stat line marked the 16th such 20-20 game of his career.
The statistics were impressive, but it was the win that mattered. In fact, it would have been more surprising had Love not put up 20 or more points when logging 24 rebounds. In the 18 times he’s posted 20 or more rebounds, he’s logged fewer than 20 points just twice. Yes, twice in 18 tries. He’s Kevin Love. That’s what he does.
But he’s also been doing that for four years on a losing team, in a majority of games in which he wasn’t so recently removed from a broken shooting hand. And yet it’s taken just four contests, not even a week, to almost forget about the hand. It’s part Love’s fault – play like his encourages that – and part to blame on the collective seconds-long memory of sports. Whatever the reason, Kevin Love is back. Kevin Love is playing like Kevin Love, and at this point, there’s no reason to expect that he’ll show any more sluggishness than he already has from the injury. Logic says it’s all just going to improve from here.
So then why was Tuesday special, when Love has put up comparable numbers every time he’s played since his Wednesday debut? It was special because it was a win, but there’s more. It was special because the Timberwolves broke a pattern of losing a decent halftime lead – although they tried. And it was special because of this moment:
With 27 seconds left in the game and the Kings still with a fighting chance, down 93-89, Love shot the ball from 15 feet out. It looked good as it arced toward the basket, but it hit the rim at a funny angle. Nine times out of 10, this ball rattles out and into the hands of some Kings player waiting below the rim. But not this time. Not with the game on the line and the ball in Love’s hands.
It circled, rattled, jumped a bit, and then finally fell through, and as Love ran back down the court, he smiled. On the bench, Lou Amundson was beaming, clapping, looking downright incredulous. He’s been Love’s teammate for just a handful of games. He doesn’t expect these things yet, and he’s not quite conditioned yet to expect this kind of stuff.
In his first three games, Love did everything he always does, and that was enough to render the broken hand insignificant. He wasn’t perfect, and that was enough to blame a glove and throw it away. But on Tuesday, he proved himself and the expectations right, playing great once again, but this time for a win. He was there at the end when his team needed him, perhaps foreshadowing the moments to come, the moments when he leads the Timberwolves to wins that matter, to wins that come when they finally, after all these years, have a winning record.
They’re a long way from that point. But with Love back, it’s now reasonable to at least imagine it.

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