MINNEAPOLIS – No one said it wouldn’t be dramatic.
When the Houston Rockets faced the Timberwolves for the first time this season, on Jan. 23 at the Target Center, emotion was expected. Former Timberwolves coach and general manager Minnesota native Kevin McHale was returning to Minneapolis for the first time as an opposing coach. He was bringing with him Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman’s former team, a group of players who had spoken out publicly against Adelman’s departure last summer.
They missed Adelman, and McHale must have missed Minnesota just a little. He must have felt a certain pang of pride as he watched the success of Kevin Love, a player who he was at least partially responsible for bringing to the Timberwolves.
That was the story line, or so everyone thought. But McHale denied the inherent strangeness of the situation, making what was disconcerting – McHale on the away bench – into something almost awkward. Adelman, for his part, acknowledged that his team in Houston had been a remarkable one, with talent on the court and good character. But that was it. For the stoic Adelman, the nostalgia seemed not to matter. There were hugs (for Adelman) and boos (for McHale), and a Houston win capped the night.
But when the Timberwolves went to Houston just a week later, Adelman’s homecoming was marked by another event. It was to some a humorous highlight, but to Love and his teammates, the pass that Luis Scola tossed at short-range into Love’s groin was not a laughing matter. Minnesota went on to win the game, 120-108, but the team did not forget what had happened.
Perhaps because of that pass, or perhaps because of the emotions of the Timberwolves next game against Houston, on Feb. 4 Love stepped on Scola’s face while defending him during the third quarter of the Timberwolves’ 100-91 win in Minnesota. The NBA suspended Love for two games after the incident, and suddenly, the Houston-Minnesota story line had shifted.
Adelman, McHale – none of that mattered anymore. Since then, it’s been all Love-Scola. But the repentant forward, who has averaged 28.3 points and 16.5 rebounds since returning from his suspension, said this week that he won’t let the teams’ new, physical rivalry color how he plays. He knows he made a mistake, but facing Scola again Friday won’t make Love cower in the wings.
“That’s all behind me,” Love said. “I’m going to go out there and fight like I usually do. I just made a mistake and learned from it. It won’t happen again. I’m going to go out there and fight.”
“I expect to be booed,” he added. “It’s a dead issue, and I’m sure it’s a dead issue to their team, too.”
Love did acknowledge the inherent emotion of playing against Houston, fueled by the coaching swap and the former Minnesota point guard, Jonny Flynn, who now rides the Rockets’ bench. They’re emotions that obviously power Love’s game, but he learned two weeks ago that they can also be a distraction. He’s ready to put the Rockets behind him, and Friday night marks the fourth and final game against the Timberwolves’ Western Conference opponent.
“To get Houston out the way, it’s a good thing,” Love said.
With this season’s lockout schedule, playing Houston four times in 26 days isn’t quite as crazy as it otherwise might be. The frequency of the games no doubt played a part in the emotion and events of the recent weeks, but that’s something players simply have to accept, and the chance to take three out of four from the Rockets is something Adelman’s team should seize.
“It’s just, this season is so screwy,” Adelman said. “Playing Houston four times in four weeks, I haven’t even looked that closely at the schedule coming up. I’m afraid to.”
That upcoming schedule features a stretch in which the Timberwolves play the Lakers three times in three weeks, arguably a more difficult task than four games against Houston. So for what it’s worth, finishing the season series against the Rockets will be a relief, but there’s worse to come.