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Painful season still holds promise for Love, Timberwolves

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Kevin Love sat back in his chair late Monday night, his feet dipped in an ice bath, left knee covered by a therapeutic wrap and blood-stained scratches on his arms.

By the Minnesota Timberwolves' standards, in other words, he was completely healthy.

When it comes to the league's most surprising, endearing team this season, the pain -- in the end -- will have won out over the promise. The Timberwolves have never recovered from the devastating loss of rookie point guard Ricky Rubio to a torn ACL and LCL in his left knee on March 9, having lost 10 of 14 games since then while falling out of playoff contention and enduring the relentless ripple effect that continues.

Rubio's replacement, able veteran Luke Ridnour, sprained his right ankle badly enough against the Kings on Monday that he left with the aid of a crutch after receiving X-rays from the home team's medical staff. There's no diagnosis or a timeline for his return yet, but his teammates don't expect to see him anytime soon.

Ridnour's exit coincided with the return of Nikola Pekovic, a second-year center who would likely be in the running for the league's Most Improved Player award if not for the injuries that have robbed him of 19 games. Point guard J.J. Barea (thigh contusion) and small forward Michael Beasley (toe) are still stuck on the team's medical chart, the duo having accounted for 40 of the team's 140 games missed because of injury or illness. And with just 11 games remaining and 12th-place Minnesota (25-30) trailing eighth-place Houston by 4½ games for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, the fight that Love isn't give up on finally seems futile.

"We'll definitely keep fighting," Love told SI.com. "We knew it was going to be an abbreviated, condensed season, that it'd be a war of attrition. Who's going to be healthy at the end? It didn't happen to be us. The fact that we lost Ricky, we lost Pek, Mike, J.J. a bunch of times and now Luke, it's just tough. I never would've thought that would've happened, and I thought we could make a special run this year. But the biggest thing is we've just got to continue to keep fighting this year and set a great example heading into the summer and into next season."

Love -- who in January signed a four-year extension worth up to $62 million that has an opt-out after the third year -- sees this as merely the beginning of a return to relevance for the Timberwolves. He's already shown what he can do with a summer's worth of work, having transformed his frame (by losing 25 pounds) and his game (by honing a lethal three-point shot) during the lockout.

And while his MVP campaign fizzled with his team's fall, Love's drastic improvement in scoring (20.2 points last season to 26.5 this season, good for fourth in the NBA) and his continued dominance on the glass (13.6 rebounds, second in the NBA) meant he was worthy of the buzz he generated around the league. On March 23, he became the third player this season to score 50-plus points, finishing with a career-high 51 in a double-overtime loss to Oklahoma City. Love logged his seventh 30-point, 20-rebound game two days later against Denver, becoming the league leader in that category among active players, ahead of the likes of Tim Duncan (six) and Kevin Garnett (five).

As Love is well aware, though, questions remain about his game. Will his haphazard defense improve? Will he make better use of those passing skills that helped attract first-year Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman to the job? Will he become more adept in the post? And if Rubio isn't able to return in time for the start of the 2012-13 campaign, will Love -- whose teams won a combined 56 games in his first three seasons -- be able to spark success from the start?

"I'm proud of myself [for this season], but I just want to never settle and continue to get better," Love said. "I'll be heading into my fifth year and will be considered a vet, so to speak. So for me, it's just about continuing to lead this team ... continue to work on my body. I'm still 23 years old, so I can continue to work at that. I think I can still refine a lot of parts on my game, and continue to work on my post game as well.

"Defensively, I'm always getting better. I'm still learning [how to use my passing]. ... That's definitely something I have to tap into."

The lack of a lockout this summer can only help. Love and his teammates will be able to communicate with Adelman throughout the offseason and take part in a full training camp. General manager David Kahn will have decisions to make on free-agents-to-be Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph, and he still has the one-time amnesty clause that can erase any contract at his disposal (center Darko Milicic could be a candidate here).

Even without using the amnesty, the Timberwolves will have salary-cap space (approximately $10 million) if they don't bring back Martell Webster ($5.7 million team option for 2012-13) and if center Brad Miller retires as he has indicated he will. The roster still has untapped youth, too, as forward Derrick Williams, the second pick in the 2011 draft, will surely improve on what has been a quiet rookie campaign. And if Utah makes the playoffs, the Timberwolves will be able to cash in on the first-round pick they acquired from the Jazz that is top-14 protected.

As painful as this season has been for Minnesota, the promise remains.

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