Stretching the Field: A Love-ly return in Minnesota

It wasn't as dramatic as Willis Reed's surprising return in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, but the unexpected season debut of Kevin Love was what the Minnesota Timberwolves needed.

And the Timberwolves needed it badly.

Love is a rising star in the NBA and respected around the league. His dedication in keeping his body ready for a grueling schedule is beyond reproach and it didn't come as a shock when he broke the third and fourth metacarpal in his right hand doing knuckle push-ups in mid-October, an exercise that has since been banned by head coach Rick Adelman.

The Timberwolves' franchise player and recent gold medal recipient at the London Olympics, Love was a surprise activation in Wednesday's 101-94 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the finale of a three-game homestand (0-3). The attendance of almost 17,000 people received a nice treat before Thanksgiving and watched the centerpiece of the organization put up 34 points and 14 rebounds.

Love played with inspiration in the early going, posting 16 points in the first quarter. It was another day at the office for Love, whose nine-game absence led to a 5-4 record for the Wolves. He wasn't supposed to return for another few weeks and didn't have much time to practice with his teammates.

"I didn't want to make a big deal about it," Love said. "I told my teammates, and they didn't really believe me. Once they saw a jersey in my locker, they believed it was true."

Love didn't miss a beat and played 34:51. The 6-foot-10 sharpshooter drained 12-of-25 shots and struggled a bit from 3-point range, burying only two of his nine attempts. Playing with his shooting hand wrapped, the double-double machine said he would be back as soon as he was cleared by the team's medical staff and was disappointed his team couldn't pull off a win. Love wasn't surprised about his early return and stayed in shape as much as he could.

Running, cutting and weight training for his lower body shouldn't have been a problem while dealing with a hand injury.

Minnesota has lost three in a row and four of five games, and is fortunate to have Love back with a four-game western road trip against the Trail Blazers, Warriors, Kings and Clippers on the horizon. The Timberwolves have split their first four road games of the season and those odds should improve.

Love was asked if the team will be much better with him back and the pending return of point guard Ricky Rubio.

"The biggest thing will be just me getting back into game shape and, you know, knowing that when we have a drought, to play through me," Love said. "I just haven't been there and I think, the hand, it's only been five weeks. When it gets to eight weeks, then hopefully I'll be back to, you know, the real Kevin Love."

If 34 points and 14 rebounds fail to define who the real Kevin Love is, then the rest of the league, especially the Northwest Division, has to be concerned. Love, who did show signs of rust and said his hand was sore after putting up 25 shots, is glad the Timberwolves will get a few more cracks at the division-rival Nuggets because he feels Minnesota was the better team in the recent loss.

"Just being out there, we know we can beat them, and they're a team that we need to beat," Love said. "So we're happy to have a chance to play them a few more times, and I think that more often than not we're going to get those guys."

Denver erased a 17-point deficit to spoil Love's return. Center Nikola Pekovic and guard JJ Barea were back on the floor with Love, and now only the anticipated season debut of Rubio is next. Rubio, of course, tore a knee ligament last season and his loss put a damper on the rest of the campaign, as the Timberwolves missed the playoffs for an eighth straight year.

Love has some new teammates to get adjusted to in forward Andrei Kirilenko, guard Brandon Roy, who unfortunately is dealing with another knee ailment, and little-used forward Josh Howard. Now that Love has returned, minutes for Derrick Williams, Dante Cunningham and Lou Amundson could dwindle.

"We definitely rely on him," Kirilenko said of Love. "He's our leader, but we can't stop playing the game, you know, we have to move more. We have to, you know, get opportunities more, help each other more."

The Wolves have a roster that's good enough to grab the sixth, seventh or even eighth seed in the West barring injury. Love is back, Rubio is on the mend and both Pekovic and Kirilenko have carried the scoring load. The Wolves need to be at full strength to compete with Western heavyweights Memphis, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and both Los Angeles teams to name a few.

It will interesting to see how the Timberwolves jell when all the pieces are in place around Love.