Love, Wolves in a hurry to realize their potential
BOSTON -- It's 40 minutes before the game and Kevin Love is sweating in the hallway outside the visitors' locker room. His stance is wide as he flings a weighted ball against the concrete wall forward and backward and side-to-side. Every minute is precious as the game approaches. Every workout matters when you're a 25-year-old All-Star who has never made the playoffs.
He and his young Timberwolves are in a hurry to define themselves, to fast rack their togetherness. If their record of 12-13 could be transferred to the Eastern Conference, they would be a game out of the No. 3 seed and the glass would be closer to half full. But life isn't that simple in the West, where the Wolves are 2.5 games behind the Mavericks for the No. 8 spot, with the Warriors and Pelicans standing in their way.
Love's MVP-type numbers -- 25.0 points and 13.6 rebounds -- have astonishingly not been enough to keep the Wolves afloat this year. On Monday, Kevin Martin (20.6 points per game) was sidelined by a sore knee, and Love -- lacking the support of a reliable scorer -- needed 26 shots for his 27 points. His Wolves were beaten 101-97 by the Celtics and Jared Sullinger (24 points on 14 shots to go with 11 rebounds), who has been counseled by coach Brad Stevens to mimic Love's ongoing course of self-improvement. "If I had any advice," Love was saying of his own experience, "it would be don't wait for summer. Start improving now."
Love is in his sixth year in the NBA. Injuries cost him most of last season, and the pressure on him to finally reach the postseason is enormous. Already he has had five games of 25 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, which is something no one else in the NBA has accomplished once this year. His net rating is 26.8 points, which is best in the league, according to 82games.com.
"We've talked about his growth as a guy on the floor," said coach Rick Adelman. "He's doing a much better job of making his teammates better by passing the ball -- more thinking about passing the ball. In the past he's been a very emotional player and would let things get to him. But that comes from wanting to be good. He knows he's going to be on the floor 36-37 minutes, so let the game come to you. You don't have to get upset the first quarter if you don't make shots -- you just have to make the rest of your teammates better.
"Everybody knows you can score. He's a unique talent, a great rebounder, but you've got to keep getting better in other areas."
So far this season, Love is averaging 4.0 assists -- double the production of his last full campaign two years ago.
"That is having more patience with your teammates," said Adelman. In previous years, Adelman believed Love wasn't focused on playmaking. "He wasn't looking for it," the coach said. "I know he's a good passer and he's got a great IQ, so it's a matter of trying to bring that up. And we've got to keep adding people around him, so that when he does give it up we're being successful."
This was not a good night for the people around him. His crosscourt pass in the final two minutes found Alexey Shved alone for an errant three that could have tied the game; a minute later J.J. Barea airballed a three that would have swung Minnesota ahead. "We shot the ball terribly all game," said Love. "Myself included."
High hopes had been raised around the quartet of Love, point guard Ricky Rubio, center Nikola Pekovic and Adelman, who rates among the most effective coaches in league history. But Martin is their oldest player at 30. Forward Corey Brewer is starting for the first time since his rookie contract. Pekovic is in his fourth year, while Rubio is too young to be a star in the NBA's most demanding position. "The expectations probably were way too much for him," said Adelman of Rubio. "He's a good player, but let him grow."
Rubio is barely 23, he missed 50 games over the previous two seasons around major knee surgery and he's still developing his jump shot -- no easy thing when you consider how long Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo have invested in their shooting. Rubio is converting 36.1 percent of his shots from the field, which was a blight on the excellent assist-turnover ratio of 2.61 that ranks him fourth among high-volume point guards with seven or more assists per game.
"I don't like to make a lot of calls," said Adelman. "I try to get him to understand what he can do to make the teammate better, and what players like. And obviously he's got to shoot the ball better.
"And he works at that -- that's where he has a big advantage. He works so hard, and he's going to get that. But sometimes he puts his head down and just tries too hard to turn things around."
In Europe, Rubio had a command of the pace. In the NBA, however, he has played as if showing too much respect for the athleticism of his opponents. "To be good in the league," said Rubio, "you have to have your own style, but also play to a different style -- what your team needs you to play."
There are times when his own speed gets the best of him. "And then he puts himself in terrible positions," said Adelman. "But he's getting better at that."
Parker is the finished example of what Rubio strives to be. "When Parker gets around people, he gets in that area -- he slows down," said Adelman. "Really good point guards -- (Steve) Nash is the same way -- you get around, get in that gap, you slow down; you look around at things, and that's the way you develop that teardrop or learn how to use picks. And then if it's not there, he brings it back out. Ricky still has to learn to change his speeds. It's something that will come in time with him."
For the time being, said Adelman, "It's 100 miles an hour all the way to the basket. In that open area, that's where you see the really good players: The game slows down for them. And then they can read the defense a lot easier.''
The schedule is a facet that is discussed much more in locker rooms and coaches' offices than among the fans. This season the Timberwolves will play a dozen games against the four worst teams in the league -- Milwaukee, Utah, Philadelphia and Sacramento, which are important mismatches for any team hoping to contend in the powerful West -- but so far they've played only one of them, a 106-99 win at home last week against the 76ers. Minnesota won't have a homestand of more than two games until the New Year.
"We've just got to hang around," said Adelman. "I've never had a schedule like this. Everybody complains about the schedule, but we've been constantly in and out (of Minneapolis) and it's really done havoc to our practice time."
There is much to work to be done for a team that fully expects to make the playoffs for the first time since it reached the 2004 conference finals around that season's MVP, Kevin Garnett, who was 27 at the time. The Wolves rank 30th in defensive field-goal percentage, they don't get back in transition and they lack a rim protector. New president Flip Saunders has already traded for defensive help in Luc Mbah a Moute, and more talent could follow. But reinforcements weren't the focus for Love as he sat numbly with his feet in a bucket of ice late Monday. Next up was a home game against the West-leading Trail Blazers, with more workouts in between.