From booing Love to oohing Wiggins, Wolves fans got money's worth
MINNEAPOLIS — They came to ridicule.
They stood to laud.
They left early. But they left in wonder.
Kevin Love's return to the Twin Cities was like a triplet set of Russian matryoshka dolls, each enveloping the other. By the end, Love's new mistress walked out with a convincing 106-90 victory.
But the Cavaliers' assertiveness was far from the only lesson driven home Saturday night at the Target Center.
It started with an expectedly vitriolic reception for Love, who forced his way out of town via a trade after last season. LeBron James finished it, in the way only LeBron James can.
In between, though, rose an unassuming youngster with boundless physical gifts and an increasing tenacity that showed itself in full force. Rookie of the Year favorite Andrew Wiggins, the primary harvest reaped in the Love deal, bore fruit like never before against the team that drafted him No. 1 overall but was pleased to ship him out when James came home and Love plowed his way onto the market.
Thirty-three points, tying the most by a Wolves teenager. Until the fourth quarter, he exchanged equal blows with the world's greatest at the moment, the guy they've been comparing him to since his YouTube videos went viral in middle school.
Then LeBron did as LeBron does, stamping out any thoughts of a monumental upset by the team with the NBA's worst record. He scored 16 of his game-high 36 points in the final frame, including a 13-2 run all on his own that made it 94-87 with 5 minutes, 8 seconds to go.
"The focus became the game," said Minnesota coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders, who engineered the Love deal and had nothing but good things to say about the former star who pouted his way through last season, "which is the way it should be. People saw a great performance by Wiggins, our future. They saw a great performance by one of the best of all time and probably the best in the league right now in LeBron.
"They got their money's worth."
Did they ever, even if it wasn't what most of the 19,562 in attendance — a rare sellout crowd for the 8-39 Wolves — came to see.
This was touted as the most anticipated contest on the slate because of Love, because of all the disdain and bitterness surrounding both sides of his departure. Like Minnesota, Cleveland (29-20) was on the second day of a back-to-back, so the three-time All-Star didn't have much time to soak in the memories.
Only to experience the awkwardness of staying in a hotel, not his apartment, in downtown Minneapolis. To take an immediate left into the away dressing room. To turn around on the last note of the national anthem and hang from the rim opposite the one he's used to.
"I'm used to going about 50, 60, 70 feet a little bit further and taking a left," Love said of his past Target Center arrival habits. "I see that they renovated the visitors' locker room, but that's my one of only handful of times ever going in there."
The fans let him have it as soon as he came out for pregame warmups. Then again when the public address announcer bellowed "At forward, out of UCLA, No. 0, Kevin Love." His first few touches, the boos rained down just as heavily.
But at the first quarter's 5:04 mark, images of Love flashes on the video board alongside his accomplishments here — perhaps to atone for a Wolves production from the past week that went viral, mocking Love's return and placing emphasis on that of fellow former Minnesota player Mike Miller. Saunders said before the game he'd spoken with the staffers responsible for its creation and dissemination and expressed his displeasure.
"I think as an organization, we need to be above that," Saunders said. "It just doesn't set the right message."
(For the record, Love said after the game there were no hard feelings. After originally praising the video as "hilarious" Friday, he "thought it was pretty tongue and cheek. I have a pretty dry sense of humor, so I got a kick out of it. I thought it was pretty funny. It's fine. You can tell [Saunders] that.")
As Saturday's plaudits played over the in-arena multimedia system, Love waved to the crowd, which now produced more cheers than catcalls. He shook Saunders' hand and gave him a hug. Before the game, he'd done the same with owner Glen Taylor and his wife, Becky.
"Truth be told, I thought it was a pretty good reception, especially from the familiar faces," said Love, who finished with a very Love-like line of 14 points and 17 rebounds. "It was nice to see and shake hands with a lot of different people. Glen and Becky Taylor came over to me and said some really nice stuff, different teammates from the past over on the other bench."
And as the night wore on, the fire started smoldering.
Mostly because of Wiggins.
Attention quickly turned toward the two-time Western Conference Rookie of the Month as he darted around James and Love for buckets, knocked down 3's and held his own against The King on the other end. He had 23 points at halftime and finished with a scoring mark only Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury reached here before their 20th birthdays.
"It's always a motivation game against Cleveland, against one of the all-time greats, LeBron," said Wiggins, who played for the Cavs during Summer League but said he never established an authentic connection with the franchise. "I love the big stage. I love playing in the spotlight. I love fans, big crowds."
It wasn't his first big game. He scored 27 earlier this year at Cleveland, had 31 at Denver and is averaging 19.8 points on 47.7 percent shooting since that first game against the Cavaliers, which Wiggins has indicated as a turning point.
Saunders calls him a "popcorn player."
"When he smells the popcorn, the bigger the game, the more energized he becomes," Saunders said.
Of course, he could've been on the other side of it Saturday. When asked if he regretted missing out on the chance to develop behind James, Wiggins didn't hesitate.
"Not at all," Wiggins said. "God just works in mysterious ways, and I feel like this is the best spot for me. I feel like I've grown a lot more here than I would've there."
That's a development borne from injuries, most notably to starters Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio. With them — and, more recently, Shabazz Muhammad — out of the fold, he's become a primary scoring option, more by default than anything else.
For three quarters Saturday, the results were tangible. You could see them. Feel them. Hear them, or at least the enthusiasm they elicited — the kind Garnett used to brew here more than a decade ago.
"He's a great, great talent," James said. "He has a very good feel for the game. That's good to see. He was calm, played the game the right way tonight. They've got a good piece."
Said Saunders: "What can you say? He showed tonight that he's got potential. He's going to be a superstar in this league."
But he's not there. Not yet.
When Wiggins and friends "ran out of gas," according to Saunders, James stepped on it. "That's why he's LeBron," Wiggins said. "I feel like he's competitive, and you've got to be in this league. This league is a no-mercy league. It's kill or be killed."
For Cleveland, it was a disaster avoided on the road and a 10th consecutive win as Love, James and Kyrie Irving try to figure out how to play championship-caliber basketball under coach David Blatt.
For top-of-the-lottery-bound Minnesota, it was a window into the future — a packed house, and a superstar bringing its patrons to their feet.
"Our goal," Saunders said, "is to have the type of environment that we did tonight every game that we play."
Said Wolves shooting guard Martin: "Wigs played an unbelievable game against the best player in the world. Hopefully, someday, he'll be just like him."
Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter