Love poised to steal the show at Olympics

BY foxsports • July 16, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — Kevin Love expects himself to win. Always.

He'll tell you that resolutely, with nothing more than a stoic gaze and a hint of a shrug. He did it before the 2012 All-Star Game, when he was an underdog in the 3-point shooting contest, and there's no doubt he feels the same way about the upcoming Olympics.

In both cases he was chosen, recognized for his talent and drive, yet overshadowed by bigger names from better teams. In both cases, he's on a national, even world-wide stage, and that same competitive spirit that made a silly contest a must-win event might just make Love the Olympics' breakout star.

Flash back to February, when Love was selected for the 3-point contest. Although his long-range game had improved drastically, he was still the underdog. Kevin Love was not supposed to win.

Then, on perhaps the biggest stage of his career to that point, he did.

It was just a contest, a meaningless show, but anyone who even remotely knows Kevin Love should be aware that's not how he thought about it. He's one of the most competitive players in the league. He demands the highest standards from himself, and why shouldn't he? With each push to the next level, he's made it, exceeding expectations at every turn.

Now, here's the part that's both awe-inspiring and a tiny bit terrifying: If that's what Love demands from himself in a contest that mattered so little, imagine what he might do at the Olympics.

Look through the 12-man Olympic roster and try to find a player more poised for a large-scale breakout than Love. You won't be able to. Most are already stars on the national and world-wide level: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony — the list goes on, and many of those stars are coming off seasons that pale in comparison to Love's. Then there are the others, the James Hardens and Andre Iguodalas, solid players who've gotten national exposure deservedly but are unlikely to have breakout roles on the Olympic team.

The stars are already stars. The supporting cast is set. And then there's Kevin Love.

He's made it to the precipice of relevance on a large scale. It's not "Who's that?" anymore, but rather, "What can he do?" There's no surprise in Love's Olympic selection — least of all for the power forward himself — but there's still an element of uncertainty. The Kevin Love that was fourth in the NBA in scoring and second in rebounds in a very different player from the one who played — and impressed — on the national team in 2010, and it's hard to know what form his emerging talent will take on the court with bona fide superstars.

It's hard to know, but if you're the betting kind, hear this: Bet on Kevin Love.

It helps that the team is low on big men and that 19-year-old Anthony Davis has replaced the injured Blake Griffin, giving Love a good chance at more minutes by no effort of his own. But don't let that cheapen what Love should be all too capable of achieving; he'll deserve every minute he gets. He'll likely have a significant role on the team, and if the past means anything, Love will rise to the occasion. He's not going to settle for a support role or fall into the larger-than-life shadow of Kobe or LeBron. That he's never played a minute of playoff basketball in his pro career, that he's never started an All-Star Game or been to the Olympics before — none of that figures into the equation, save as motivation.

Losing with the Timberwolves was a new experience for Love, who came to the NBA after taking UCLA to the Final Four in his only season at the school.

He has an intense drive to be the best he can be. It's a sense that the world doesn't know how good he is, likely a byproduct of his years in Minnesota, and it might come across as more ungrateful than he intends. When he talks about his frustration with the team running high, when he claims like he did last spring that he can't always be Superman — that's when Love is hard to understand. But without that latent hunger, Kevin Love is just another decent big man.

With it, he's one of the league's best. With it, he can steal the show at the Olympics. With it, he might be a household name come August.

Last season was a close to perfect narrative for Love as an individual. He broke out as a player and a leader as his team began what looks like a new era of basketball. He was among the league's statistical leaders and posted numbers in March that are unlikely to be replicated in the near future. Yet through it all, there was always the lurking criticism that he was doing it on a losing team. Numbers don't matter as much as wins — that will never change — and there was always the sense that the Timberwolves' stumbles somehow cheapened Love's accomplishments.

It's impossible to say whether that criticism was warranted; there's no simple way to control for talent and caliber of competition from teammates. At least there wasn't until now, the Olympics, when Love will be paired with the nation's best. Reality lies in the median, something between the Olympic squad and his losing team, but for now, Love will have to make do with the opportunity he has.

This isn't another 3-point contest. This isn't a fun, glitzy show for fans. These are the Olympics, the highest level of sports, and though that might be daunting to a lesser player, to Love it's likely just fodder. Question him. Point out the limits of his experience. Wonder what form his stats would take on a winning team.

Keep it coming, and Love will feed off of it. He's earned a certain status within the NBA, and the Olympics are the perfect time to finally claim it.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.