As the clock ticked toward midnight on Friday the Twitter accounts of NBA writers across the country gradually began to shift toward one topic. Kevin Love? Really? Of all the potential players to join the NBA's 30-point, 30-rebound club -- a club that hasn't seen a member since Moses Malone joined in 1982 --Love seemed like an unlikely candidate.
But there was Love against New York, dominating the defensive glass (19) and gobbling up 12 of Minnesota's 57 missed shots to finish the game with 31 boards. His 31 points didn't come pretty -- it took 26 shots for Love to get them -- but Minnesota needed every one of them to battle back from a 21-point deficit and secure a 112-103 victory.
Why is Love's performance so surprising? At a listed 6-foot-10 (yeah, right) and with a vertical leap that you could barely slide a piece of paper under, Love doesn't have the athleticism of elite rebounders like Dwight Howard or Tyson Chandler. But Love's board work is a sweet blend of physicality, positioning and an uncanny knowledge of where the ball will come off the rim. Last season he ranked as the NBA's best rebounder per 48 minutes (18.4), edging Howard (18.3) and Marcus Camby (18.1). His rebound percentage this season (23.2 percent going into Friday night) is the third highest in NBA history for players 22 or younger, better than Howard, Charles Oakley and Shaquille O'Neal.
"For me, rebounding is all a mindset," Love wrote this week in a blog for GQ. "My dad told me back in the day that there is no such thing as a selfish rebound because it's a team stat. If you have to fight one of your own teammates for a rebound, do it -- as long as you get it. Also, I studied the greats. Dennis Rodman had it figured out: he knew that most shots are going to come to the other side of the rim. So that's how I position myself. And Bill Russell always used to say that 80 percent of rebounds are below the rim. I'm not the kind of guy who's going to jump and touch the top of the square every time. I use my body for positioning, and I work relentlessly underneath the rim. You don't have to be the most athletic guy in the world to get a bunch of rebounds, so I just try and take what my dad said to heart, what Rodman said to heart, and most importantly what Bill Russell said to heart. He's got 11 championship rings so I think he knows what he's talking about."
For Love, the accomplishment comes during a particularly trying stretch. The Timberwolves' trade of Al Jefferson over the summer was supposed to create more minutes for Love this season. But before Friday night, Love had played 30-plus minutes just twice in nine games and was averaging just 28 minutes per game. It wasn't as though he wasn't producing; Love was averaging 16.6 points and 12.8 rebounds. On Tuesday he became just the second player in Wolves history to record 20-point, 20-rebound, five-assist games and the youngest in the NBA to do it since Shaq in 1993.
But Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis has continued to keep Love on a short leash, leading many to speculate there's a rift between player and coach.
"Kevin's minutes are only limited by how hard he plays," Rambis told reporters on Wednesday. "With any player it's a skill set to know how to drive yourself through that wall that tells you you're tired. It's not easy; playing extensive minutes every night in this league is hard."
Regardless of Rambis' reasons for limiting Love -- defense and poor shooting seem to be atop his list -- his performance against the Knicks should be enough to turn him loose. Minnesota isn't going anywhere -- Friday's win raised the Wolves' record to 3-7 -- and the development of Anthony Tolliver, Kosta Koufos and Nikola Pekovic should not be foremost on Rambis' mind. The growth of potential franchise cornerstones -- specifically Love and Michael Beasley, who scored 35 points on Friday, two days after dropping 42 on Sacramento -- should.
If not, there are plenty of suitors for Love's services. Love's value over the last few years has grown considerably, evidenced by his selection to the 2010 USA Basketball team. At 22, Love is likely to continue to improve, diversifying his offense and picking up a few defensive tricks along the way.
Love has the makings of a very good player. Exactly the kind of player a downtrodden franchise like Minnesota desperately needs.