The big takeaway from tonight’s Timberwolves’ win over the Kings was that they beat a team they were supposed to beat. This is the mantra everyone repeats as one of the important steps along the journey from godawful to great that the Wolves have undertaken. And that’s important. Playing up (or down) to your opposition is a common problem among young teams, so seeing the Wolves definitively put the hammer down in the fourth was great. By the end, they were making it look easy, which is never something you caught yourself saying in the Rambis years.
But what was most interesting in the 99-86 victory was the way Kevin Love got beat up and how he responded to it. Certainly, the Double-Double Machine’s coming out party was last season’s 31-31 game, but somehow, it was hard to escape the sense that he was still flying under the radar, even as opposing teams were flashing double teams. But then came last week, when Love, in an interview with 1500 ESPN, said he was the best power forward in the game.
OK: he didn’t exactly say that. When asked who the best “4” in the game is, he responded, “I believe I’m the best ‘4’ in the league. I think you have to believe that you’re the best … That’s part of winning the mind game from the very start. You have to believe it. You have to hold yourself accountable.” So what he was really saying is anyone who plays in the NBA needs to believe they’re the best at what they do if they want to succeed. There’s certainly merit in this approach.
But if you talk, people are going to listen, and it seemed tonight like the Kings’ bigs were listening closely. They made life difficult for Love in the post, and it started to get to him. I’m not going to argue the merits of this or that foul, because that’s not what I’m interested in. Love was called for some fouls that came about as a reaction to aggressive physical play, and the refs swallowed their whistles on some plays that could have gone his way. Tonight wasn’t the beginning of this, as evidenced by Love’s tweet following a physical Hawks game two nights previously: “Don’t even know what to say. Eventually we will get respect in this league. It will happen.”
So Love hasn’t been getting some of the calls (the “star” calls, you might say) that he thinks he deserves. What’s more important than whether he gets these calls or not is how he deals with it and it appeared, at least initially, that he wasn’t dealing with it particularly well. He got a tech early on for arguing and then came precipitously close to a second one when he nearly ate his jersey in sheer frustration. He engaged in a few more discussions with the refs, and blew running back on defense a couple of times because of it, but basically, when it counted, he came through.
The Wolves couldn’t seem to put the Kings away for a long time, letting them hang around until finally stomping on them in the fourth quarter, sparked by (of course) Rubio. And Love came away with 33 pts and 11 rebounds, which is just the kind of thing we expect from him night in and night out. (Lost a bit in all the hype over Rubio and Love has been Luke Ridnour’s sneakily solid work, including tonight, when he chipped in 25 points, 9 assists, and a +20.)
In fact, the whole Ridnour thing dovetails into this greatest-ness stuff. Attribute Ridnour’s improved passing to Rubio or lack of Rambis or the presence of Adelman, but it seems undeniable that a huge part of his success this season has been in not having to carry the load of being the point guard. Twitter exploded when Ridnour dished a behind-the-back pass for an assist, some wondering why the crowd doesn’t ooh and aah when Ridnour does it as opposed to Rubio, some attributing that past directly to Rubio’s influence, others immediately jumping on the notion that Rubio could have had such an influence. To me, I saw a way of seeing the game that Ridnour was most likely always capable of but that had only been opened up as possible to him recently. And not directly by Rubio, but rather by Adelman allowing Rubio to be Rubio, which in turn allows Ridnour to be Ridnour.
So what would it mean for Love to be Love? So far, in spite of his tremendous numbers, he’s been seen as someone who can’t put the team on his back with his scoring when it counts. A couple of desperation threes at the buzzer that have failed to drop have perhaps reinforced that view. But with the way he’s talking, he seems to want that mantle. As other teams begin to treat him like the threat he is, seeing how he responds is going to be the real barometer of his ceiling. And if he can become a threat that other teams focus on, that benefits other offensive options like Ridnour and Beasley, when he returns. For all we talk about balance on teams, it’s often that imbalance—that player who draws a greater amount of the other team’s attention—that opens up the floor for the rest of the team. More attention on Love equals more of the floor open. In the end, it’s good that he doesn’t accept just being a rebounder or an opportunistic scorer but wants to put the team on his back, that he has the drive to see himself as the best PF in the game. Whether he will ultimately prove himself up to the task or go down harder than Lana del Rey on SNL, only time will tell.