Wolves’ Love returns to form in solid win

MINNEAPOLIS – Kevin Love sat. The lead was 19, the clock was ticking down, and the power forward had his 36 points, his 13 rebounds, as much as he could have asked for.

And so they clapped as Love settled into his chair, maybe a bit sweatier than he would have been last year, maybe a bit more relieved, but so far from ready to admit that this could be the norm.

Oh, was he ready for the conjecture, for the proclamations of his resurgence after the Timberwolves’ 91-73 handling of Cleveland Friday night. He got it during the game, from teammates ribbing him that he was back, half kidding, half hoping. He was ready with his deflections, not quite of praise, but of any hint of prediction.

“It’s one game,” Love said. “I made some shots, made my free throws – most of them. So you know, hopefully it’s not fool’s gold. It’s a step in the right direction. I mean, I’ve been putting in work, but it’s just one game.”

It’s a funny world in the Timberwolves’ locker room of late, with Love’s spotlight commandeered by Andrei Kirilenko one night, Alexey Shved the next, Nikola Pekovic after that. Since Love’s return, he’s averaged 21.2 points and 14.2 rebounds, but that’s included nights with as few as six points, which he logged in Philadelphia, games in which he’s shot as low as 20 percent from the field. And yet he has still been good. Very good, even, but not quite great. His long-range shooting is wobbly; he hit two 3-pointers in a game for the first time since Nov. 27 on Friday, and when Greg Stiemsma each time went up with his signature cheer (basically a football first down signal), it didn’t even seem ridiculous.

Cheer, Kevin Love is sinking threes!

Cheer, Kevin Love is making free throws!

What a funny world it is indeed.

Love has been staying after practices, putting in extra work to get his shot back. He’s averaging just 38.2 percent from the field, a career-low, albeit in this 10-game sample size. But Love is an elite scorer, and to be anything but is to work harder, to find a rhythm, to shoot, shoot, shoot until the sheer will of Kevin Love twists ball through net. He’s doing it not because he’s playing poorly in layman’s terms, necessarily, but because he’s playing poorly in relation to his own standards.

“He has a history of always making shots, and that’s going to come,” Adelman said before Friday’s game. “I think the biggest thing for him is to just understand that he’s got to go out and do it. He’s doing extra work. He’s trying to get back to where he’s been, and I just, I don’t worry about it.”

Adelman doesn’t worry about it because this is Kevin Love we’re talking about, after all. But the coach’s laissez-faire attitude no doubt also stems from the fact that the team has been able to win without its star, both when he’s literally not stepped onto the court and when he’s struggled to be a scoring threat. Sharing that spotlight hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing early this season as Love returns to his peak form, and it may continue.

Because it was only one game. It was 36 points, 13 rebounds, a steal, a blocked shot, 35 minutes, 52.6 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from long-range. It was season highs in every one of those categories but minutes, rebounds and steals. There’s still work, though. There are still turnovers to eliminate and offense to find, but for Love himself, things seemed as they should be.

At least, they were until Love got to the locker room, until the caution began. And you can’t blame him. This season has been a string of unfortunate accident after petty minutiae, a broken hand followed by an ill-timed bout with disease. So first his shooting was off after five weeks of a cast and then a glove. His conditioning wasn’t great either, not after his draining summer and those weeks without playing. And then the illness, playing through it and in the process stalling whatever progress he’d made. Now, a week out from the worst of the sickness, and he’s plugging forward again. Finally, with a month of the season behind him.

I’d be cautiously optimistic too.

Love is saying he’s a couple of weeks out from where he should be, that it might take 15 or 20 games after his comeback for him to hit his stride. He’s hedging his bets, a mortal on the court for the first time in months. We’ve seen flashes of Love so far this season, and Friday night may well have been another. It could be the start of something, of course, but how is Love to know? He returned home an Olympic hero only to break that hand. He came back with the high drama of surprise and to the tune of 34 points only to catch some funky germ on the West Coast. That’s enough for superstition, or at least this tempered outlook.

He knows he’ll again play like the player he was last season. He’s just not saying when, and as brooding as that might sound when he declares it, it’s not. It’s wise.

It’s just one game. Sooner rather than later. These are new mantras for Kevin Love, ones that make things sound so much worse than they are. But those are Love’s standards, borne of the past four seasons and his nearly uninterrupted progress, always forward, always linear, from good to great to elite.

And if he has his way (which he always seems to) the progress, nay, the show – it begins again soon.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.