Love’s stats put him in rare company

MINNEAPOLIS — As Kevin Love lined up at the free-throw line Monday night, the chant began.

“MVP! MVP! MVP!”

It may have been premature — it was only the fifth game of the season, after all — but it wasn’t quite as unreasonable as one might think.

Love was on his way to a 24-point night, leading his team to a second consecutive win. The Timberwolves hadn’t won two in a row since March 9 and 11 of last year, so it doesn’t take much to incite fans at the Target Center to err toward hyperbole.

Love’s big numbers so far this season are a huge reason for the team’s heightened expectations. He is averaging 25.4 points per game, up from 20.2, and his rebounds are steady at 15.2. Love leads the NBA in double-doubles — he’s had one in each of his five games — and is fifth in points per game behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Blake Griffin. It’s impressive company for the fourth-year forward, but he sees the numbers a bit differently from the way his chanting fans do.

“My first three games, I was a little bit off,” Love said. “I kind of found a rhythm the past two, and hope I can keep that going.”

Wait a minute before you call him crazy. Yes, he averaged 26 points and 14.7 rebounds in those first three games, a far cry from “off.” But he was just two of 10 from 3-point range and missed 10 of 42 free throws. That might be good enough for some players, but it wasn’t for Love, who said he worked too hard in the offseason to shoot so inefficiently.

On Sunday and Monday, Love played the way he expects to play. Although he averaged 24.5 points — down a bit in the scoring column from the first three games — Love made shots when they mattered. He hit six of seven free throws and nine of 15 3-pointers, making five of six 3s on Sunday.

“The past two games, I felt myself really at ease with my game, and when I feel that I can really go out there and play well,” Love said.

Rhythm has been the theme of Love’s self-analysis this season, and perhaps it’s because the Timberwolves need consistency from him now more than ever. Although he’s only 23, Love is a team leader in every sense, and that may explain his near inability to feel satisfied with his numbers.

No one else has been critical of Love, though. Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman spoke favorably of his shooting game, and even Love admitted that he worked hard on his step-back 3-pointer in the offseason and expects to see results. Opponents and teammates alike have praised the forward’s play, none more positively than rookie point guard Ricky Rubio.

“I don’t know how he can catch the rebounds, how he can shoot the ball like that,” Rubio said. “He’s amazing. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve had, and I love playing with him.”

Mavericks center Brendan Haywood affirmed Love’s offseason training Sunday, when he called him “one of the better power forwards in the league” and complimented his 3-point shooting. And though many seem to be in awe of Love’s game, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sees no mystery in the forward, just talent.

“There’s no magic,” Popovich said. “He’s an All-Star player, a great player.”

Popovich’s analysis may be the closest to Love’s actual mindset. Love knows how much work it has taken to get himself to this point, and the constant progression in his numbers since his rookie season speaks to his dedication.

Losing weight and spending hours at the 3-point line during the lockout, being able to look past strong numbers to find hidden flaws — that’s what makes a good player great.

Love may not be the MVP — not yet, at least — but he heard those cheers. He remembers them. And there’s no way he’s not working tirelessly toward that goal.