The ball caroms off the rim and into Kevin Love's hands, and suddenly Love is transformed into the one type of athlete he could never be. The son of a former NBA player father, Stan, who loved one sport and with a nurse mother, Karen, who despised the violence of another, Love was forbidden to play football. Basketball was your game, they said. Knock people around out there. But Stan understood the value of strong hands, strong wrists, so he put dumbbells in his son's hands at an early age and taught him muscle-building drills he still does to this day. And years of battling an older brother on a ten-foot hoop that he could barely reach taught him to accurately sling the ball at the rim.
So when Love lets fly a 60-foot outlet pass with a Thor-like flick of the wrist that sends a ball the length of the floor with Peyton Manning-esque precision, it isn't a surprise. To Love, it's just what he has been doing his entire life.
Love laughs at the memory of those days. They are good ones. There have been more good memories for Love to keep lately, too. Last season was disastrous, both for Love, who battled broken bones in his right hand, and the Timberwolves, who won 31 games and spiraled into the lottery for a ninth straight season. But backstopped by a healthy Love -- who has been putting up some impressive numbers -- the Wolves sit at 5-3 entering Wednesday night's game against Cleveland, with the look of a team ready for a return to the playoffs.
"This is the best team I've been on since I got here," Love told SI.com. "We have the talent to do some big things."
This was the team Minnesota hoped for a year ago, one led by Love and dynamic second-year playmaker Ricky Rubio. Injuries to Love and Rubio's slow recovery from an ACL tear in March 2012, scuttled that, but the team they have fielded this season has the potential to be even better. A silver lining in a lost 2012-2013 season was the rise of Nikola Pekovic. A walking foul his first two seasons, the 6-11, 243-pound Pekovic emerged as a one of the NBA's best young centers last year, averaging 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds. Behind Pekovic and Love, Minnesota has been able to control the glass (45.1 rebounds per game, fifth in the NBA) and limit second chances. The Wolves are fifth in the league in defensive efficiency, the highest the team has ranked in franchise history.
"It's hard to get an offensive rebound against them," said an Eastern Conference scout. "That allows their wings to not have to go to the boards, and they can get out and run."
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The backcourt has been bolstered by the return of a healthy Rubio -- who notched his second career triple-double on Sunday -- and the addition of free agent Kevin Martin. A glaring weakness for Minnesota last season was perimeter shooting, particularly beyond the three-point line, where the Wolves shot a league-worst 30.5 percent. Enter Martin, inked to a four-year, $28 million contract in the offseason, who has been a round-peg, round-hole fit. Martin is connecting on a blistering 55.8 percent of his 3-pointers, helping raise Minnesota's team shooting to a respectable 34.6 percent.
"You can rely on him," Love said. "In the fourth quarter, he takes so much pressure off of me."
Even with all the improvements, it's Love's game that continues to shine above the rest. His 26.4 points per game is a career-best and his 15.0 rebounds leads the NBA. Before the season, Minnesota coach Rick Adelman approached Love about jacking up his assist numbers. Love is no stranger to improving. As a rookie, Love shot 10.5 percent from three-point range. His third season, he shot 41.7 percent. Love spent the preseason focusing on looking for cutters and making the extra pass. The result: Love is handing out 5.0 assists this season, more than double his career average.
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It's a far cry from last season, when Love would at times find himself looking down at his hand and wondering if he would ever get the right feeling back. The broken bones in his right hand, cracked last October by a freak injury, had healed enough for Love to play but never at 100 percent. That hand, Love says, felt like a closed fist, and every shot felt like it was being pushed off of his wrist. The second break, in January, may have ended Love's season, but the surgery restored the feeling in his hand and the confidence in his jumper.
The conversation about Love's future isn't going anywhere -- he can become an unrestricted free agent in 2015 -- and for that, Minnesota can only blame itself. The David Kahn Era produced a slew of failed high lottery picks (Johnny Flynn, Wesley Johnson, Derrick Williams) and a fractured relationship with Love, who wanted nothing more than the team to make the longest possible commitment to keeping him there. Kahn is gone though, and new team president Flip Saunders has forged a strong relationship with his star.
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All Love wants to do is win, and Saunders offers stability Love has never experienced before. The lure of New York or L.A. in 2015 may be considerable, but is playing with an aging Carmelo Anthony or Kobe Bryant more appealing than Rubio, Pekovic and Martin? Can two teams with coaches on unsteady ground represent a better option than the proven, experienced hand of Adelman?
These are questions for another day, of course. For now, Love's only thoughts are on putting up numbers and racking up wins. There will probably be another All-Star appearance for Love this season, another All-NBA team berth, too. For the first time though, there may be something else, something that matters to Love most of all: A trip to the playoffs.