By Jerry Zgoda, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) –
MINNEAPOLIS — Kevin Love’s evolution from mushy prep star to NBA hard body who this season is learning how to win when the game is in doubt has surprised many who thought his arms are too short, his athleticism too limited to ever consistently create his own shot when it really matters most.
Just for the record, he never doubted himself, because he has done this all before.
Even if it he was only 12 at the time.
“This is what you work for in your driveway growing up,” the Timberwolves forward said. “You count down the last few seconds of the NBA Finals and you want the last shot. If you don’t make it, you go back and try it again. If you don’t make that, you try it again. Here, it’s a whole different level, but this is what you grow up playing for. For me, this is a big stage and I love the ball.”
Love transformed his body last summer, returning in December after the NBA’s five-month labor lockout 25 pounds lighter and barely recognizable from the UCLA freshman — with, by his own description, “the bad beard, the ugly chinstrap, the buzzed head” — he was just five years ago.
With that done, he now is at work transforming his game from a freakish combination of relentless rebounder and three-point shooting threat into a guy who’s both confident and unafraid to win a game when it is on the line.
Coach Rick Adelman calls it Love’s “next step” to greatness, this learned ability to make the right decisions and create the correct shot when his team needs it most.
He has done so this season by beating the Clippers in Los Angeles with a theatrical buzzer-beating, three-pointer in January, by scoring 13 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter Saturday at Portland and by scoring the Wolves’ final three baskets to finish with 39 points in Monday’s 95-94 home victory against the aforementioned Clippers.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, he became the first player in NBA history to reach 35 points, 10 rebounds and five three-pointers in consecutive games.
“Last year, when I was watching stats and numbers and seeing he had double-doubles in a row, I say that guy is good, but I didn’t think he was this good,” teammate Ricky Rubio said about watching Love from afar in Spain last season. “We have our Linsanity here with Kevin.”
According to Adelman, Love is becoming before his very eyes the player he someday will be: The guy who wants the game’s last shot and who will make the last shot, characteristics that separate NBA superstars from everybody else.
“Some guys have that, they want that and a lot of times they fail before they succeed,” Adelman said. “All the great players who are great down the stretch all have failed at one or the other, but they have learned. They are not afraid to fail. They believe they’re going to succeed.”
Love admits he never really knew if he could be that kind of NBA player until this season, if only because the Wolves almost never were in position to win many games and he was never asked to do so.
“This year, it’s a little bit different,” he said.
This season, he is starting to prove himself proficient in creating, and making, his own shot in the clutch, something NBA scouts and many others doubted he’d ever be able to do when he entered the NBA four seasons ago.
“They also said I wouldn’t have success in the league, they also said I wouldn’t be able to shoot, they also said I wouldn’t be able to score down low, get to the line, this, that or the other,” Love said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes and I’m going to keep continuing to prove people wrong my whole career.”
This season, he says he wants the ball in his hands at the end of games, no matter what may come.
“A lot of those shots don’t go in, but you have to have the toughness and the willingness to accept the consequences when they don’t,” said Wolves assistant Terry Porter, who played in two NBA Finals and knows something about a big-shot situation or two. “Some guys can’t handle that pressure. It’s always a learning process for everybody.”
That learning process takes time, lots of time, sometimes all the way back a dozen years or more to that driveway.
“I don’t really believe in fear of failure,” Love said. “I did early in my career, but I don’t believe in that anymore. Being that guy, I think it’s something you can learn, I think it’s something I’ve evolved into. It’s always something I’ve wanted, whether I’m the guy shooting the ball or the guy making the pass and making the play. I want the ball at the end of the game.”