When it was over, after Shawn Marion had raked Kevin Love‘s right arm to thwart what might have been the game-tying jumper while somehow avoiding the whistle that could have delivered those points from the line, all Love and the rest inside Target Center could do was stare. And smile, in the bewildered Love’s case, or bark the way Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman and so many fans did at the referees exiting the court as swiftly as the Dallas Mavericks. (Even the NBA, early on Tuesday, had to admit that their guys had messed that one up.)
It was a painful end to an inferior performance by Minnesota (a 21-point deficit prior to the scramble back, just five points from Wolves reserves, vaporish defense enabling Marion’s 32 points).
It also was Exhibit A in the case against Love ever leading the NBA in scoring.
That possibility came up over the weekend as Love kept plugging against Washington and Milwaukee on a streak of scoring at least 25 points in 11 consecutive games, the NBA’s longest this season (and longest in Wolves franchise history). With 33 against the Bucks Saturday and 36 against the Mavericks Monday (never mind the phantom two and however many more in an overtime that never happened), Love (26.5 ppg) has pushed to No. 2 behind Kevin Durant (28.5). New York’s Carmelo Anthony (26.3) is third, followed by LeBron James (25.5) and Paul George (23.9).
Love wrapped up December with monthly numbers of 30.0 ppg, 13.7 rpg, 4.2 apg while shooting 50 percent overall and 44.2 from 3-point range. That might earn him some Player of the Month love, but it doesn’t change the debate over his shot at scoring title.
Because of, well, Exhibit A.
“I wonder what that would have been if [Dirk] Nowitzki, LeBron James, all the top players in the league – a guy reaches on a last-second shot like that, instead of challenging it. Maybe they don’t understand that Kevin is one of the top five players in the league,” Adelman said.
Maybe ref Ed Malloy didn’t appear to on that final play Monday (Malloy was close but on the far side from Love’s right arm and Marion). Still, Love shot eight free throws in the game, most by anyone on either side. (Nowitzki shot three in 33 minutes and Minnesota never bothered to put Marion on the line at all.) He ranks sixth in the NBA with 230 free throws attempted (and third with 191 makes).
For Love, that’s an average of 7.66 attempts per game. Among the scoring leaders, that’s fewer than Durant (9.26) but more than Anthony (7.25), James (7.13) or – this will get Frank Vogel going – George (5.75). But when a fellow earns those whistles matters, too, and if Love – big strong guy who, in those late-game situations, often is hoisting from at or near the arc – doesn’t get the same benefit of the doubt among elite scorers, he’ll have a tough time capturing a scoring crown.
That leads to Exhibit B: The way Love plays. He is a double-double machine in points and rebounds and, of the league’s 11 performances of 25/15/5 this season, Love has eight. Adelman and boss Flip Saunders challenged Love to boost that last number — and Love challenged himself — from what had been a career 2.7 assists. He is doing it, up to 4.2 apg in 2013-14.
Along with leading the NBA in rebounding (13.7), that’s a lot of varied responsibility, beyond what Durant, Anthony or maybe even James has on a given night. The Heat star can play any of the five positions, certainly, but doesn’t have to attend to the glass the way Love does.
Adelman didn’t sound optimistic about a scoring title in his guy’s future.
“I don’t know,” the Minnesota coach said before Saturday’s game. “I don’t think it’s that important. He’s got disadvantages. He plays a lot inside, too – they’ll take things away from you. I don’t even worry about that. If he keeps getting 25 points, I’ll be happy.”
Some of Love’s rebounds are put-backs but, by playing down low, he’s in heavy traffic more than the game’s wing scorers.
Love might have ambitions to add a scoring title to his growing stats-and-achievements collection – he was tickled to win the 3-point in 2012 when he also finished second in rebounding (13.3) – but he doesn’t harbor any illusions.
“It’s tough to say,” Love said after the Bucks game. “As long as Kevin Durant’s in the league, I doubt I’ll ever lead the league in scoring. He’s a monster out there. For me, I just try to be the most efficient player I can be. If I’m in the top five to 10 in scoring, that’s pretty darned good.”
And that seems fine, considering Exhibit C, the history of it all. Shooting guards and small forwards have won the past 13 scoring titles (Durant 4, Allen Iverson 3, Kobe Bryant 2, Tracy McGrady 2, Dwyane Wade 1, James 1). Prior to that, players in those positions had won 13 of 16 (Michael Jordan 10, Iverson 1, Dominique Wilkins 1, Bernard King 1), interrupted only by centers Shaquille O’Neal (1995, 2000) and David Robinson (1994).
In other words, we’ve got to go back to Utah’s Adrian Dantley in 1981 and 1984 for any scoring champ who played power forward and work so heavily in the paint. Before that? Now we’re talking Bob Pettit with a pair of points titles in 1956 and 1959. Otherwise, it’s been smaller, swifter guys, behemoths like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or occasional hybrids (Bob McAdoo, Elvin Hayes).
Love does have one advantage historically over great power forwards past or present: His 3-point proficiency. This season, he ranks sixth in attempts with 196 – more than any of the other Top 5 scorers – and he’s averaging 6.53 3-point shots per game. Among power forwards, according to basketball-reference.com, only Ryan Anderson (four times) and Antoine Walker (three) have done that, depending how you classify Rashard Lewis (twice in Orlando).
At this point, though, on the day after, Love, Adelman and Minnesota probably would settle for cleaning up Exhibit A.