DENVER – Timberwolves star Kevin Love averaged 34 points, 14 rebounds and three made three-pointers a game during the month of February, the kind of production that helped make him the reigning Western Conference’s player of the week.
That’s more points per game in the month than NBA leading scorer Kevin Durant, more rebounds than Dwight Howard, more three-pointers than shooter Kyle Korver.
What will March bring?
For starters, it could bring the possibility that he will be named the West’s player of the month when the winner is announced Wednesday. Since the Wolves were just 5-6 in February, the league would have to choose Love’s sheer statistical output over players such as Houston’s James Harden, who led his team to an 8-2 month, or the Clippers’ Blake Griffin, who led his team to a 7-4 month.
But it will also bring a period of adjustment as the Wolves integrate starters Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin back into the lineup after weeks away injured.
That process started with Saturday’s 108-97 victory at Sacramento. Martin returned three weeks after he fractured his thumb and played 34-plus minutes and scored 19 of his 26 points in the first half. Pekovic played for the first time in more than a month because of ankle bursitis and he delivered a 20-point, nine-rebound performance that included two important free throws down the stretch in nearly 28 minutes that well exceeded his 20-22 minute imposed time limit.
“It’s going to take a little while,” Love said after Saturday’s game about bringing back both players into a team that now has won five of its last six games to keep that final playoff spot in sight. “But it didn’t look like it tonight.”
Love’s 22-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist game Saturday ended his streak of consecutive 30-point, 10-rebound games at six. That streak surpassed Kevin Garnett for the franchise’s record of consecutive 30-point games and his streak of 20-10 games is the NBA’s third-longest in the past 30 years, behind only Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone.
It was a month’s production borne out of necessity first and foremost for a team that missed for most of the month the combined 38 points Pekovic and Martin average a game.
“He just stepped up. He had an unbelievable month,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. “He knew we needed him and we went to him a lot. We really centered everything around the way he plays.”
Love said he did more in February because more was needed, but he also believes he never tried to do too much.
“I’m playing quality basketball,” he said, “but the shots I’m getting are all in rhythm and none of them are forced.”
The absence of Pekovic and then backup center Ronny Turiaf also forced Adelman to play Love more at center. It was a delicate balancing act where he nightly weighed how the benefits of playing Love more at a position that creates beneficial mismatches offensively but also demands more physically of a star already banged up.
Love fell hard twice while Pekovic was out, injuring his neck, back and tailbone in incidents Love said might be attributable to banging against the big boys.
“They know I’m going for the ball and they try to hit me when I’m going up in the air,” Love said. “It’s just one of those things: You fall down and you get back up.”
With Pekovic and Martin out, Love’s scoring increased. So, too, did his playmaking: Love had seven or more assists in four of six games before his team’s two starters returned Saturday. In those six games before Saturday, Love averaged 5.8 assists.
Love said both could be due to playing more at center as well.
“Definitely could, because it’s a hard guard for a ‘5’ man,” Love said, referring to opposing centers. “I play inside-out. I get to the free-throw line. I give the defense of a lot of different looks. You take a beating at the center position on the defensive end, but you get it back at the other end.”
With Pekovic back and Turiaf return from a knee bone bruise expected later this month, Love will return to play more at his natural power-forward spot. Adelman said he hopes the return of both Pekovic and Martin will be “seamless” but also admits that’s unlikely.
Love welcomes Pekovic’s return because the big guy is more suited to do all that banging down low.
“Obviously, it’s a lot better having this guy back,” Love said. “You take a beating there at center. We have to figure out different lineups. I don’t want to play all 48 minutes over these next 25 games. Pek can guard those 5-men and take care of the bulk of stuff inside, but I’m still going to be aggressive.”