Ricky Rubio sliced through the defense, looked to his right and zipped a pass to his left. Fellow newcomer J.J. Barea caught it and buried a three-pointer, and another unfamiliar guy, this one walking to the scorer's table, held three fingers in the air.

Strange, but the mystery player looked almost like Kevin Love, only without the down vest Love used to wear under his jersey.

The crowd got what it wanted from the new Wolves last night at Target Center in their exhibition opener: Smooth passes from Rubio, scoring from Barea, three-pointers from Derrick Williams and a real coach on the sideline in Rick Adelman.

The tragedy of the evening was that we discovered there is less Love in the world. He looks like someone pasted Justin Timberlake's head onto a Gronkowski's body.

Love looks fantastic. Coming off one of the most impressive statistical seasons in Wolves' history, he lost about 20 pounds and 6 inches off his waist, forcing him to have the good people at Neiman Marcus take in all of his pants. He's bringing new meaning to the basketball phrase "going small."

The changes in his body might not be superficial. During the Wolves' 117-96 victory against Milwaukee, he achieved a double-double in the first half and finished with 21 points, 15 rebounds and three assists in 27 minutes.

He looked quicker and more agile. He shot with tremendous range, making four of his seven three-pointers.

The two most noticeable differences in his game on Saturday night were two changes that bode well for the Wolves. Love paid homage to all of the slick-passing forwards Adelman has coached by seeing the floor and finding open teammates. And he played a much firmer form of defense than we saw for most of last season, when Love's thirst for rebounds sometimes caused him to slack off his man.

"I feel good out there," Love said. "My body feels live and energetic."

Asked what aspect of his game will benefit the most, Love said: "Defense. Definitely. Having better legs in the fourth quarter."

What we're seeing with the Wolves is the basketball equivalent of a brain transplant. This was poorly run on the court and from the sideline.

The effect of Adelman and his staff on this team was immediate. On offense, the Wolves spaced the floor, moved the ball and isolated weak defenders. The players looked more comfortable by the second quarter of their first preseason game than they did in Game 82 last spring. And the guard play was better simply because Rubio and Barea can run an offense and get into the paint.

Love should benefit from all of the changes. With a new emphasis on passing, he could pile up assists and discourage double teams. With an offense that encourages ball movement, he should find himself open more often, and Saturday he took advantage, scoring on everything from baby hooks to long jumpers.

And if a combination of his improved conditioning and better coaching turns him into a solid defender, his stock around the league will rise. Last year, Love was a statistical anomaly, but he didn't often make those around him better.

"He and I have talked about that," Adelman said. "He's always going to be a rebounder. Every one of these guys, you'd like to see them get better at other areas. He can shoot the ball, he can pass the ball. Both him and Michael [Beasley], not only can they do things for themselves, they have to do things for their teammates."

Saturday, you could see Love grabbing Beasley by the jersey and offering reminders on defense, and banging shoulders with the estimable Andrew Bogut in the paint.

On a night when the crowd chanted Rubio's name, Love was often the guy to watch. On one rebound, he sprang off the ground, grabbed the ball near the rim and almost smacked his knees into his chin.

"I'm going to have people from Jenny Craig and Men's Health calling here pretty soon," Love said.

Even stranger, people who like good basketball might want to visit, too.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com