AS THE NBA SEASON HITS THE QUARTER POLE, TIMBERWOLVES FORWARD KEVIN LOVE HAS FORCED HIS WAY INTO THE MVP RACE WITH THE KIND OF NUMBERS ONLY PUT UP BY KAREEM, WILT AND ELGIN. HOW'S HE DOING IT? HE TOOK US THROUGH ONE OF HIS MANY MASTERPIECES
This is an article from the Dec. 16, 2013 issue
A LIGHT snowfall was dusting Minneapolis when Kevin Love hunkered down in the Timberwolves' film room to catch a special matinee. Though the windowless bunker was comfortably warm, he was turned out in a powder-blue UCLA ski cap and wool gloves with the fingers snipped off "so I can still use my phone," Love said with one of his hearty laughs that can fill a room. Had the video come with an MPAA rating, it would have warned of graphic violence (in the paint), inappropriate language (in the huddle) and gratuitous scenes of psychological torture (as Love toyed with a series of defenders). The 25-year-old power forward had agreed to break down in forensic detail one of his performances. The only hard part was settling on a particular game in what has been a historic start to this season. At week's end Love was averaging 23.8 points (fourth in the league), 13.7 rebounds (first) and 4.1 assists (second among forwards and centers). Only four players have maintained such numbers for an entire season, and you've heard of each of them: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Kevin Garnett. Love's stat-sheet-stuffing performances have included torching the Knicks for 34 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, the Magic for 31-17-4, the Clippers for 23-19-7 and the Warriors for 25-16-6.
Ultimately, for this film session Love settled on his Nov. 8 opus against the Mavericks: 32-15-8, which included three three-pointers, the beginning of a three-game stretch in which the bruising 6'10", 243-pounder went 11 for 23 from beyond the arc. As Love broke down his method, it was hard not to think of this as a roundball version of Inside the Actors Studio; it may prove particularly edifying for Love's opponents. "I don't know how he does it, man," says Nets center Andray Blatche, who watched helplessly as Love snagged 11 rebounds in the first quarter of a recent matchup. "He always gets himself in the right spot, and the ball goes right to his hands." Get your popcorn, Andray, the show is about to begin.
MIN 2, DAL 0 10:45
Love snags a defensive rebound on the left block. He pivots on his left foot and before his shoulders are square to his own basket he has unleashed a majestic full-court pass. Corey Brewer catches the ball in stride below the free throw line and drops in a layup.
Love has long been celebrated for his epic outlet passes; Deadspin recently compiled a two-minute reel of them, which Sean Gregory of TIME described on Twitter as "hoop dweeb porn." Love has been honing his ability to deliver going back to fourth grade, when he played catcher in Little League. He can also throw a mean spiral, having grown up in Lake Oswego, Ore., with dreams of playing quarterback, a notion squashed by his parents after a local high school player suffered a serious neck injury.
Love's long outlets seem like split-second decisions, but a lot of thought goes into the cost-benefit analysis, and whether he pulls the trigger is often dictated by the run of play. "Whenever the ball is in the air that long, there's a chance of a turnover, so it's always a risk," he says. "You have to be smart about it. In this case, it's not like they're on a run, or we've been turning the ball over, or the pace is all messed up. It was worth taking a shot at it."
These days Love's favorite target is Brewer, a rangy 6'9" small forward who was a key off-season acquisition from the Nuggets. He and Love have already developed an effective chemistry. "We got signals, kinda like a quarterback and a receiver," says Brewer. "He knows when I'm gonna go, I know when he's gonna throw it. He just throws that bomb like [Matthew] Stafford, and I try to go up and Megatron it."
Like Love, Brewer believes these easy baskets have a value beyond two points: the demoralization of the other team. He says, "They start looking at each other like, Man, how'd that happen? We just spent all this damn time talking about getting back on D! The coach is yelling at them, the crowd is buzzing. It definitely gives our whole team a lift."
DAL 4, MIN 2 10:04
Love receives a pass on the left wing from guard Kevin Martin, who follows the ball and sets a screen on Love's defender, 7-footer Dirk Nowitzki. Love takes one dribble with his right hand away from the basket and sweeps his right foot behind the three-point line, and by the time Nowitzki can raise a hand to contest, the ball is on its way to the bottom of the net.
"I could feel Dirk wasn't crowding me," Love says. "I used that dribble for rhythm and to get my feet under me and create a little more space. That step-back three is a shot I've been working on for the last few off-seasons. I'm a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. I believe it takes 10,000 hours to be an outlier at something. I'm not quite there with my step-back, but I pride myself on putting in the work."
Nowitzki is a future Hall of Famer who helped redefine the power forward position with his long-range marksmanship, so he has a keen appreciation for Love's evolution. "Honestly, when he first got in the league, I wasn't quite sure if he was athletic enough or tall enough to make it as a power forward," Nowitzki says. "But he's a monster now. His step-back three is a tough shot. From midrange, a step-back is not that hard. But there aren't a lot of people that can shoot a step-back three in this league, and he makes it look easy. He makes it look like a 15-footer.
"He's way beyond where I was when I was 25."
MIN 14, DAL 7 6:46
Martin and Brewer have a two-on-one against Nowitzki. Brewer misses the layup, but out of nowhere Love materializes to tip in the rebound.
"You just gotta assume everything is a miss," Love says. "In this league every shot is contested. A lot of layups are blown at the rim. My dad"—former NBA forward Stan Love—"always taught me to follow the ball into the basket. You never know, that one time you sprint up the floor when no one else does, that's the basket that can change the game."
Love entered the league north of 270 pounds, a self-described "chunky monkey." He's now lean and chiseled thanks to punishing work in the gym and a low-fun diet. Last year Love played only 18 games due to a broken right hand. Looking to reassert himself, he worked six days a week in the off-season on conditioning and basketball skills with trainer Rob McClanaghan, in addition to four days of weightlifting and two days of yoga. A special food-delivery service provided him with five carefully chosen medium-sized meals a day. "He's willing to pay the price to be great," says McClanaghan. "He won't be complacent. Ever. He brings his best effort to every workout, every time. He's a professional in everything he does."
McClanaghan works with dozens of NBA players. He says he recommends yoga to each of them, but only Love has embraced it; he maintains his practice in-season. "It's helped make him more flexible and helped his body control and balance and given him more discipline," says McClanaghan. "It shows you how badly Kevin wants that extra edge."
MIN 18, DAL 11 5:46
Love catches a pass on the left wing from Martin, who then fakes a screen for point guard Ricky Rubio in the near corner and darts to the goal. With his back to the basket, Love whips a gorgeous one-handed bounce pass to Martin for an easy layup.
In his first training camp as Minnesota's president of basketball operations, Flip Saunders presented Love with a list: Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Baylor, Larry Bird, Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham, Garnett, Oscar Robertson. "I said, 'Would you like to be on that list?' " recalls Saunders. "Kevin said, 'For sure!' I told him, 'Well, all those guys averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists in a season. You can average five assists easily, but you have to make a conscious effort.' "
Love gladly accepted the challenge. "I'm a big believer of think it, say it, do it—speaking things into existence," he says. "I've always liked being a facilitator, but if you look at our personnel in the past, I needed to carry a lot of the load as far as scoring." That's changed with the ace free agency signing of Martin (22.9 points per game through Sunday, seventh in the league) and continued development of fourth-year center Nikola Pekovic (14.8 points, 8.6 rebounds). Love is persuasive when he talks about not caring about his stats, but he does admit to looking forward to his first triple double. (He has come within two assists twice this season.) "I'm getting a lot of excitement and joy out of setting guys up for shots and getting guys going," he says.
DAL 42, MIN 37 6:03
Love fakes setting a screen for Rubio above the free throw line. As Rubio passes to forward Robbie Hummel in the right corner, Love sprints to the right block. Bernard James, a 6'10" backup center, is a step slow to react and finds himself pinned on Love's ample backside. James battles furiously to get back into position, but Love presses his booty into James and holds him off with outstretched arms. Love catches the ball in the paint, dribbles once and spins to his right. He offers a simple ball-fake and James is so deked he lands on top of Love for a foul.
"I know a guy like [James] is gonna want to toss my shot into the third or fifth row," Love says. "I can feel him on my back and I know he's pinned on the baseline side, so that's why I spin to the middle. Now the decision is, Do I go straight up with a little lefthand jump-hook or do I pump-fake? In a way you have to feel the other guy's energy, where he is mentally. He was so high-strung guarding me, I knew he would go for a pump-fake. If he didn't go for the first fake I would have given him another one. Sooner or later he was going to bite."
Mavs center Sam Dalembert, a veteran who is no stranger to Love's moves, later offered a defense of his teammate. Sort of. "It's kind of hard not to jump," he said.
DAL 42, MIN 40 5:10
Nowitzki didn't really want to guard Love, and James wanted it too much, so now it's Shawn Marion's turn. Love tries a lefthanded jump hook in the lane, but it's blocked by the 6'7" Marion, who usually plays small forward. Love gathers the loose ball and drop-steps to the basket. Marion blocks the layup attempt. Love gets the ball back yet again, dribbles once into Marion's chest and goes up for another layup. It rolls off the rim, but T-Wolves forward Dante Cunningham slams home the rebound. Love gets in his face, screaming with approval.
"In this league you're going to get your shot blocked, it's just part of the deal," Love says. "You can pout about it or you can keep playing. I choose to keep playing."
Love's teammates appreciate his grit. "I love how he fights for a rebound against five people and comes up with it," says backup point guard J.J. Barea. "I don't know how, but he does. Then he pump-fakes, misses the shot, gets it back, then he puts it in and screams a little. That's what it's all about. Most teams, it's a dunk or a blocked shot that gets guys pumped up. For us, Kevin's toughness and his fight, that's what this team is made of."
His unselfish exuberance with Cunningham is also reflective of Love's continued growth as a franchise player. This was particularly evident in a narrow loss to the Clippers on Nov. 20. Love had by far his worst offensive night of the year (2 for 14 from the floor, 6 for 10 from the line) but he kept his team in the game with six fourth-quarter assists and inspired his teammates with a rousing second-quarter speech in the huddle. Says Barea, "The second unit, we started the second quarter and they hit us with an 11--0 run. Coach [Rick Adelman] calls timeout, and Kevin steps in and starts shouting at us: 'You guys kicked our ass all training camp. I know how good you are, now get your ass out there and show it.' I got so pumped up I started yelling at the other guys, and then they got pumped up. And we went out there and went on a run of our own. It was good to see him say something. I want him to do more of that. To succeed a team needs to know its best player cares about everybody else. Kevin is learning that. He's learning how to lead this team. He's always done it with his play, but he's learning it takes more than that."
Reflecting on that game, Love says, "It was a tough night, my shot wasn't falling, calls weren't going my way. If that had happened in my first few years I would have gotten down on myself. I probably would have been, I wouldn't say, narcissistic—I just would have caved in and been a little more about myself having such a poor shooting night. But I fought through that and was still able to impact the game in other ways."
DAL 48, MIN 44 3:16
From the left wing Martin drives the lane. Love, at the right elbow, makes like a defensive lineman executing a swim move and pushes past Marion toward the basket. Before Martin has released his floater, Love is using his lower body to bump Marion away from the basket. Love taps in the missed shot for easy basket.
The beaten-down men who have to guard Love talk about his rebounding as a kind of black art, particularly his supernatural ability to know where the ball is going. "I have developed a knack for that," says Love. "But I also do my work early. I have a solid base, thick legs, a big ass, so I can throw guys around. You can see there I'm not jumping to the top of the square...."
"You're barely at the bottom of the backboard," he's told.
"Yeah, thanks. As I was saying, Bill Russell told me before my rookie year that he believes that 80% of rebounds are taken below the rim, and I've taken that to heart. If I do my work early I don't have to jump high because I've already taken up so much space, the balls are going to come off the rim right to me."
"What he does is so subtle," says Clippers center Ryan Hollins. "He doesn't fight you with strength, he doesn't jump over you, he just kind of sneaks into the right position. And then he has such great hands. His hand-eye coordination for a big man is probably the best in the league. It's a tough combination."
MIN 77, DAL 74 1:58
From the top of the circle Love passes to Barea on the right wing for a 22-foot jump shot. As soon as the ball goes up, Love starts retreating on defense. But as the long rebound is arcing toward Cunningham near the free throw line, Love hustles back to the left wing for a wide-open three-pointer.
"At this point I've played 10 minutes into the quarter," Love says. "I'm not taking the play off, but I see four blue jerseys in there. I can try to wiggle my way in, but it's a low percentage that I'm gonna get the rebound one against four. I'm backpedaling but I'm watching everything."
"He has an amazingly high basketball IQ," says Rubio, who is fourth in the league in assists now that he's fully recovered from last year's left-ACL surgery. "He sees everything that is happening on the floor, and a lot of times it seems like he knows what's going to happen before it happens. To have a guy who is always in the right spot, that's a point guard's dream."
MIN 105, DAL 102 2:18
Love posts up Marion just above the left elbow and receives a pass from Martin, who comes over to screen Marion. Love takes a hard dribble to his right, compelling Marion to go under the screen, but with a big step of his left foot Love glides behind the three-point line. Martin's man, Monta Ellis, lunges forward to contest the shot, but he's seven inches too short and a few milliseconds too late. Love has drained his third three-pointer, for the night's most important basket.
"That's a play that we look for in the fourth quarter," says Love. "That's a play we talked about in the huddle. Coach mentioned it and K-Mart said, 'What are you gonna do with it?' And I said I was going to knock it down. You can see us running up the court, K-Mart and I gave each other some dap. That was a fun exchange. It was like, I told you so!"
MIN 108, DAL 102 1:38
After the Mavs miss a layup, Martin can't connect on a floater in the lane. With his left arm Love is pushing 6'6" Jae Crowder nearly out-of-bounds, but with his right hand Love delicately tips the ball off the backboard. Brewer corrals the rebound, and the T-Wolves reset. Love gets the ball back in the left block with Marion now guarding him. He turns to face him, takes two dribbles toward the baseline and then, with another pump-fake, gets Marion to leave his feet. As Marion flies by, Peter Pan--style, Love buries a one-footed fallaway from 15 feet. ("Yeah, I stole that one-footed move from Dirk.") In one sequence his unique skill set has been on display: savage strength, soft hands, textbook footwork, silky shooting touch, bulletproof confidence. The game, a 116--108 Minnesota win, is now essentially over.
Speaking of the offensive rebound that kept the possession alive, Love says, "It's a funny dichotomy. With one arm you have to be a gladiator going to war, with the other hand you have to be as gentle as a pianist."
This selfless distributor never considered giving the ball up with a chance to make another crucial basket. "I really love shots that hold a lot of weight," Love says. "You grow up in the front yard, you're counting down those last few seconds. You do it thousands of times as a kid. It's kind of nostalgic to do it for real. I don't feel any pressure. I'm very at peace, I'm very confident. I know I've put in a lot of work to put myself in that situation. You're gonna miss some, I know that. But what matters are the ones you make."
THE TIMBERWOLVES are in the midst of the toughest stretch on their schedule. In nine days they traveled to Indiana, Houston and Oklahoma City (all losses), then flew to Mexico City, where their game against the Spurs was canceled due to smoke in the arena. They are 9--10; the goal is to be close to .500 in mid-December and then begin a push to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Love won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, but he was self-conscious about being the only veteran on the team who hasn't experienced the NBA postseason. The chronic losing during his first five years in Minnesota has led to a low roar of chatter about where Love might or might not choose to play when his contract expires in 2015.
It doesn't help that his girlfriend, Cody Horn, is a former model and budding actress (Magic Mike, End of Watch) who spends most of her time in Los Angeles and New York, glittering markets that are home to several flailing teams. The Timberwolves have already begun their push to re-sign Love. They're on the verge of breaking ground on what some folks call the House That Kevin Built: a new facility to replace their practice court at Life Time Fitness, where a plastic curtain is all that separates them from middle-aged lunchtime ballers. The club and the city of Minneapolis have also agreed to split the cost of a $100 million upgrade to the Target Center, which has locker rooms that many high school teams would find cramped. Love professes to love the Twin Cities, and he appreciates how the area has embraced his high-scoring team. The former Bruin spends his off-seasons in L.A. and radiates a New Agey mellowness, even in the face of questions about his contract. "As far as mental space goes, I'm in the best place I've ever been," Love says. "Two thousand fifteen is so far away, I'm just living in the present. I'm only focused on right now and this team. All that matters to me is the next game."
Or, really, the next play. "One thing Flip has talked to me a lot about is how to fail quickly," Love says. "It's O.K. to make a mistake as long as you leave it behind." This is the essence of Love's greatness: a relentless commitment to making the right play. In the grand sweep of his game against Dallas, Love enjoyed no dunks, no killer crossovers, no trash talk, nothing that meets our definition of a highlight, warped as it is by braying SportsCenter hosts and YouTube mixtapes. He just did the little things over and over, until they added up to something big.
BRINGS TO MIND ... WES UNSELD
Love's middle name—Wesley—came from Unseld, a former Baltimore Bullets teammate of Love's dad, Stan. Like Unseld, Love makes up for a lack of height with his savvy and tenacity. And like Unseld—considered the greatest outlet passer ever—Love is a triggerman extraordinaire.
BRINGS TO MIND ... KEVIN GARNETT
Love, who has never averaged more than 2.5 assists, is dropping 4.1 dimes this year. Like Garnett, one of the best high-post distributors ever, Love has exceptional vision and a deft touch, allowing him to carve defenses apart from the free throw line.
BRINGS TO MIND ... DIRK NOWITZKI
Love freely admitted to copying Dirk's one-legged J, but the two big men have more in common: Love won the Three-Point Shootout in 2012, just as the Mavs' marksman did six years earlier.
Where does Kevin Love stand in the MVP race? Find out on the Point Forward blog, as Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney hand out their awards for the first quarter of the season, at SI.com/mag