LOS ANGELES -- Timberwolves forward Kevin Love had a ready-made excuse Friday night, but he never needed it after an unforgettable 101-98 comeback victory over the Clippers at Staples Center.
He never needed it, not by a long shot.
Or, more precisely, he never needed it exactly because of a long shot.
Love's three-pointer shot from 5 feet behind the arc won a game at the final buzzer, a game in which Wolves rookie Ricky Rubio added to his already growing legend and Love, on national television, just might have dotted the I's and crossed the T's on that five-year, $78 million-plus contract extension if he really wants it.
Trailing by 15 in the second quarter, by 12 with fewer than 10 minutes left and by three in the final 51 seconds, the Wolves closed with a finishing 24-9 flourish that featured Rubio's professionalism and Love's will.
They won on Love's theatrical final shot that left the home-crowd fans alternately stunned in silence and holding their phones up to flash photos of Rubio and Love as they left the floor in a joyous embrace and then in boisterous celebration.
It was their first lead in the game since they scored the night's first basket.
"Back in college or maybe high school," former UCLA standout Love said when asked if he had ever hit a winning shot quite like that one. "But something of that nature -- on ESPN, in front of a big crowd, in L.A., away from home -- no, not like that. Never like that."
Believe it or not, the Wolves and the Clippers were must-see television Friday night even before Rubio and Love each made a clutch three-pointer in the final 20 seconds and the Wolves delivered their first three-game winning streak since they won four in a row two seasons ago.
ESPN billed the second half of their Friday night doubleheader as Love against Clippers star Blake Griffin in a tussle of contradictory power forwards.
So divisive was this matter -- Griffin's athleticism and high-wire dunk act vs. Love's fundamental and relentless production -- that even the TNT studio crew got into the discussion late Thursday night and before Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal were finished, big Shaq Diesel vowed to show up next week only in his underwear if Griffin didn't clearly win the night's battle.
"Seeing that is really not high on my list," Love said before Friday's game. "At least I have an excuse if we don't come out and play too well. I can always say I was doing everybody a favor."
He needed no excuses Friday.
Neither did Rubio.
Playing on the biggest stage of his young NBA career, Rubio showed the nerves of playing at Staples Center -- "I'm finally here," he said pregame about playing in the home of Kobe Bryant and the Lakers as well as Hollywood's courtside glitterati -- by missing his first 10 shots.
But when he decided to finally make one ...
Rubio's three from the right corner with 20 seconds left tied the score at 98-98 after he produced a fourth-quarter presence that refuted his statistical numbers (zero points, three assists, four rebounds, two steals, three turnovers through three quarters) across the board.
"I believe in that shot, I believe in myself," Rubio said. "Because if not, nobody can believe for you. You have to trust in you and try to hit the shot, like we trust in Kevin on the last one."
Rubio scored all of his nine points in the final quarter, eight of them in the final 5:17.
More importantly, he played with the kind of poise when it mattered most that you might not even expect from a 21-year-old rookie who turned pro in Spain more than six years ago.
"He is unflappable," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. "He does not get down on himself. If you look at the stat sheet, he had some assists and rebounds, but he made plays down the stretch for us."
Love said he never realized Rubio was 0-for-10 before the three.
"I didn't because he has such great poise," Love said. "He doesn't really play like he's missing shots. He just keeps playing. That just shows you it pays dividends that he has played pro ball since he was 14. You've got to think he has been in that situation so many times. Everybody has games like that and he just played through it."
After Rubio's three, he forced Clippers guard Chauncey Billups into a missed layup at the other end and Love grabbed the rebound.
Timeout with 1.5 seconds left. The stage was set for Love.
Luke Ridnour in-bounded the ball from the left sideline. Derrick Williams came peeling over the top of a scrum of players setting screens, curled around that group and flashed free toward the basket. Love broke from that scrum, breaking through what Clippers center DeAndre Jordan called a triple screen and popping free more than 27 feet from the basket.
He caught and shot, then defiantly held his arms thrust toward the rafters as teammates bombarded him with affection after the ball hit little but net.
"My Gilbert Arenas pose," he said.
The guy who so badly wants to prove he can create his own shot and win games when they're on the line at the end finally came through, six days after he never got the shot he wanted in a game at Atlanta.
"I want to be the guy who takes that shot," Love said. "I can make that shot. If I get open like that, sure I can."
He hugged Rubio as the two left the court.
"I told him, 'You won us the game, man,' " Love said. " 'It wasn't my shot, it was you stepping up and having a big fourth quarter.' "
So does Love hope to see big Shaq in his skivvies come next Thursday?
"I would love to," he said, "but I just don't know if either one of us outplayed the other."
Statistically, the matchup was something of a wash: Love now has reached double-doubles in a season-starting 15 games with a 17-point, 14-rebound night, while Griffin went for 21 points and 10 rebounds, thanks largely to Adelman's decision to have Darko Milicic guard Griffin while Love took Jordan.
Milicic responded with his most active game of the season, muscling Griffin at every turn before fouling out with 61 seconds to play, blocking two of Griffin's shots and scoring a team-high 22 points that included few of those finesse flip shots as well as four powerful dunks.
Technically, Love and Griffin played to a draw, but simply for such dramatics and the fact that the Wolves now are 7-8 heading to Utah on Saturday night, Love has to win the night on a judges' decision, doesn't he?
"Yes," he said, pumping his fist in victory when told the decision was his.
So what about Shaquille in his undies?
"Talk to Chuck," Love said as he walked down a Staples Center corridor and disappeared into the night.