If Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine's mother had seen those circular purple marks on Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps' shoulders and back first, she might not have been so alarmed when her son came home with some of the same.

Or if LaVine hadn't alarmed her himself.

"I scared my mom one day by saying I got bit by a spider," he said. "She tried to send me to the hospital."

He hadn't been bitten, except, you might say, by cupping therapy.

It's an ancient form of alternative medicine that Olympians to NBA players, among others, have embraced to help alleviate pain and soreness, improve blood flow and speed muscle recovery, even if some modern medical research has stated it provides no benefit or can cause harm.

"If your arm is tight, it makes your arm looser," LaVine said. "It takes all the bad stuff out of there."

Whether done wet or dry, with fire, mechanical pump or mere pressure or with glass, bamboo or silicone suction cups, the process has been practiced in parts of Asia for more than 3,000 years.

LaVine and teammates Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng, Tyus Jones, John Lucas III and Karl-Anthony Towns — some more frequently than others — all are believers that it increases blood flow, benefits connective tissue under the skin and flushes out excessive metabolic waste.

"Wherever you're sore, it works," Lucas said. "It does some amazing stuff."

Lucas discovered cupping when he played in China and quickly became converted.

"They're real big on it over there," said Lucas, who at age 33 is in his 12th professional season. "I tried it and it worked."

He now regularly has Wolves massage therapist Amy Johnson apply silicone cups primarily on his back, calves and hamstrings in addition to giving him massages and other types of treatments intended to keep him feeling fine.

"Your body is a machine, you have to keep it healthy," Lucas said. "How can I make my body better? We have to make sure we eat right, give it the right nutrition, give it the right recovery time."

Both Lucas and Rubio have used acupuncture at times as well. "I use all kind of techniques to help my body feel better," Rubio said.

Dieng has not dabbled with acupuncture: "I hate needles. Anything with needles, I don't do that. I hate cold tubs and needles."

Some players prefer treatment the day before games, some after games. None of the Wolves players have cupping treatment every game: Dieng said he targets his back and shoulders about once a week; LaVine and Jones said they don't do it that often.

Some players require just a couple of cups on a specific part of their body. Lucas often has a dozen cups of varying sizes attached to one leg.

"The next day, you can really tell," Jones said. "You already start to feel better."

The cups can remain on, pulling skin up away from connective tissue and muscle, for five minutes to 30 minutes and longer. The most common treatment areas are backs and legs.

"You can literally do any part of the body," Johnson said. "That's what I love about them."

Lucas said he experiences a slight pinch — cup tugging on skin — when they're first attached. The other aforementioned Wolves players said they experience no pain or discomfort at all.

"It doesn't hurt, it just gives you a big mark," Rubio said. "I usually do it on my back, and I always put on a shirt."

Dieng doesn't worry about such things.

"Gorgui does it," LaVine said, "but you can't even see the marks on him."

Short takes

Former NBA coach George Karl's forthcoming book, "Furious George," has lived up to its title and it hasn't even hit bookstores yet.

In it, he criticizes such former players as Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin, all of whom responded with anger or disdain. Karl, among many other things, writes that Anthony and Martin carried two burdens: "All that money and no father to show them how to act like a man."

He also calls Anthony a "true conundrum" who lacked leadership and — alert the media — defensive effort.

"I never knew I was, what's the word, a conundrum?" Anthony asked reporters. "I don't even know what the hell that means, to be honest with you."

In the days before Saturday night's Christmas gift giving, Atlanta star Dwight Howard recalled his childhood and a family that didn't exchange many gifts.

"As a child, you wanted all the toys and stuff," he said. "But my grandma wasn't big on giving us toys, so we were stuck with thermals and socks. I was personally upset at my grandma for giving thermals, but actually now I want thermals because they're good. I guess she knew what was right and I didn't."

The San Antonio Spurs retired Tim Duncan's No. 21 jersey, an emotional occasion last week that drew such dignitaries as Atlanta coach and former longtime Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer.

The future Basketball Hall of Famer who showed so little emotion during his career let it almost out.

"Behind the scenes or in the locker room or in practice, he has a lot of personality," Budenholzer said. "He is incredibly intelligent, incredibly funny. To see him emotional was probably a little out of character. He had so much poise in the biggest moments, when there's the biggest pressure."Timmy has a lot to offer. He just doesn't share it with a lot of people."

Wolves week ahead

Sunday: at Oklahoma City, 7 p.m.

Monday: vs. Atlanta, 7 p.m.

Wednesday: at Denver, 8 p.m.

Friday: vs. Milwaukee, 7 p.m.

Sun: ESPN. Mon, Wed: FSN. Fri: FSN, NBA TV

Player to watch: Russell Westbrook, Thunder

The Timberwolves' first Christmas Day appearance features a man threatening to average a triple-double for the entire season. Through his first 28 games, he averaged 31.3 points (first in the NBA), 10.8 assists (second) and 10.5 rebounds (13th).


"Well, everything stresses me."

Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau when asked if his team was just careless enough with the ball to stress him during Wednesday's victory at Atlanta.

Twitter: @JerryZgoda, E-mail: jzgoda@startribune.com, Blog: startribune.com/wolves