It’s tiring, trying to draw grandiose, universal narratives out of one November game, but Friday night’s Minnesota-Dallas tilt pitted franchises at very different stages in the life of a star. There’s Dallas, retooling annually around aging great Dirk Nowitzki, desperately yearning to maintain relevance even after he’s lost some of his luster. Then there’s Minnesota: its young star, Kevin Love, the center of its solar system, doing everything they can to produce heat and light (playoff success) for the very first time in his life cycle.
It’s convenient and easy (and occasionally boring) to contextualize a game as two superstars crossing paths, their teammates merely comet tails streaking along behind them, but this game was all about Minnesota’s shining, evolved nebula — Kevin Love — outdueling Dirk Nowitzki. It’s usually more rewarding to explore the subtle aspects of a win — contributions by role players, coaching adjustments, dominance in a specific aspect of the game — but every once in a while, the team’s star does something that requires more than the (copious amount of) attention he already receives.
He deserves a celebration.
Love finished with 32 points (on 12-of-21 shooting) with 15 rebounds and 8 assists, a few blown layups by teammates away from notching his first career triple double. From the opening tip, he was white-hot, posting a first quarter line of 9, 6 and 6, facilitating from the elbow, throwing outlet passes to Corey Brewer, crashing the offensive and defensive glass, and nailing every open jumper he took. He played long stretches at center, holding his own, and refused to relinquish the Timberwolves’ lead, despite furious attempts by Dallas to reclaim it.
“If you don’t have someone to finish games,” said Rick Adelman at the podium afterward, “you’re going to have a tough time.” Love was at his best in the fourth quarter, but he didn’t do it alone — Kevin Martin had 32 points as well, including 12 in the final frame. The chemistry of the Wolves’ two top scorers was a staple of the postgame conversation, especially when Martin stated that Love was the reason he came to Minnesota in the first place. “What helped me decide to come here — I used to play by myself on bad teams… but after I played with Durant and Westbrook, I wasn’t going to another team without a superstar. And that’s what I have in Kevin Love.”
This quote seems to suggest that maybe the life of a star isn’t so glamorous, after all. You can feel isolated, alone. In this regard, Love and Martin can relate to one another, both having accumulated All-Star-caliber numbers on subpar teams, but both wanting desperately to take their games to the next level. Their focus is beyond the box score, and into the win column.
It was fitting, then, that Love and Martin teamed up on the shot that probably sealed the Mavericks’ fate, a Kevin Love three-pointer with 2:12 to go that put the Wolves up by 6. “I told (Martin) to pick for me, and that I would hit the shot,” Love said, recalling his on-court conversation with Martin. “He told me to pick for him, and I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do with it?’” Martin added, chuckling. After Love hit it, running back down the court, the two of them were elated, Martin slapping Love on the chest, understanding better than any of his teammates how important and difficult a task Love was undertaking as the closer for an emerging team.
Instead of Martin fitting into the scheme of the Timberwolves’ homegrown Big Three, it seems he’s now a focal point, a leader, someone as integral to the success of the team as anyone on the roster outside of Kevin Love. It won’t go this perfectly every night, of course, but seeing what the pair is capable of, closing out a game by hitting clutch shots, is exciting to behold.
As for the rest of the team… Rotations were on Rick Adelman’s mind during his pregame media session, as the coach turned a simple question about Kevin Love’s passing into a discussion about role players, getting lengthy minutes off the bench for his subs, and the importance of game-to-game consistency in this regard. Thus far, there’s been a precipitous drop in production from the first unit to the bench, and Adelman chose to address it (Friday, at least) by keeping his “true” second unit (Barea-Shved-Hummel-Cunningham-Dieng) from ever playing together.
Alexey Shved played seven minutes, all of them in the first half. Robbie Hummel, filling in for the injured Derrick Williams, was serviceable (if unspectacular) in 11 total minutes. It’s clear the staff is only comfortable with seven players on the floor in a close game — Rubio, Martin, Brewer, Love, Pekovic, Barea and Cunningham. Since off days bookended Friday’s contest, the coach utilized the extra rest by keeping at least one starter on the floor at all times — usually Kevin Martin or Nikola Pekovic.
The problem comes during back-to-backs, when the Wolves won’t have the luxury of leaving Pekovic on the floor for 16 consecutive minutes of game time (as they did Friday night) without wearing him out. Adelman seems content to deal with that as it comes — afforded the opportunity to ride his thoroughbreds to a victory, he did so. Until Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf return, the Wolves’ backups will have issues both scoring and defending, putting even more pressure on the starters to build (and keep) big leads, just in case the reserves can’t hold it.
In other words, the Wolves will be counting on the offensive presence of “both Kevins” (as Rick Adelman calls them) to buoy their efforts, even when they may be tired from shouldering the load the night before. At least neither Martin or Love should feel isolated — if one of the two can get it going, the Wolves have a chance. If both of them are producing, like they were Friday night, that chance begins to look more and more like a certainty.