Posts Tagged ‘Brandon Roy’

Morning Shootaround — July 30


VIDEO: Members of Team Africa and Team World have arrived in Johannesburg

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Ujiri leads the charge in Africa | Veteran point guard Miller joins Timberwolves | Matthews: Trail Blazers ‘never made an offer’

No. 1: Ujiri leads the charge in Africa — Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri is at the forefront of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders initiative in Africa. It’s more than just an obligation from the Ujiri, it’s a passion project years in the making. Our very own Shaun Powell is on the ground in Johannesburg and captured the essence of Ujiri’s mission to serve as an ambassador for the game, and sports in general, on his native continent:

For anyone who might ask why the general manager of the Toronto Raptors is spending his summer threatening to go hoarse half a world away, well, you must know this about Masai Ujiri. When he’s in charge of an NBA franchise, he’s in his element, because his peers find him very astute and a few years ago voted him the game’s top executive. But when he’s developing basketball and teaching life skills to children and young adults in Africa, he’s in his homeland and his own skin, and there is no greater reward or satisfaction or privilege. When and if he wins his first NBA title, that might pull equal to this.

Might.

He was in Senegal last week, holding basketball clinics through his foundation, Giants of Africa. Next up: Stops in Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and also Nigeria, his birthplace. He’ll spend three weeks on this side of the Atlantic with the hope of discovering the next Dikembe Mutombo from these clinics, but would gladly settle for the next surgeon.

This weekend is unique and special because here on Saturday the NBA will stage an exhibition game for the first time in Africa, and the participating NBA players and coaches are warming up by serving as clinic counselors.

One is Chris Paul, and the cheers he gets from campers are the loudest, but even an eight-time All-Star knows he’s not the star of the home team, not on this soil.

Ujiri ricochets from one group of campers to another like a blind bumblebee, carrying an air horn that blows when one session ends and another begins. After five non-stop hours of this he is asked if he’s tired, and no, he’s just amused at the question. Who gets tired from doing their passion?

“I look at these kids and they remind me of me of when I was a young kid,” he says. “I see me through them. All they need is a chance.”

It all runs with precision at this clinic, how the students are disciplined and determined, how their enthusiasm rubs off on the NBA players and coaches, how Ujiri’s vision seems so … right. As Ujiri gave pointers, a Hall of Famer who’s also the pioneer of African basketball stood off to the side, shaking his head, astonished at the spectacle and the man in charge.

“Masai has a lot of passion for this, and helping Africa year after year speaks about the person he is,” says Hakeem Olajuwon. “He is a prince. That’s what he is.”

***

No. 2: Veteran point guard Miller joins Timberwolves — Kevin Garnett won’t be the only “old head” in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ locker room this season. He’ll have some company in the form of veteran point guard Andre Miller, who agreed to a one-year deal to join the renaissance KG, Flip Saunders and Ricky Rubio are trying to engineer with one of the league’s youngest rosters. Miller’s role is more than just that of an adviser, though, writes Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune:

It was less than two weeks ago that Flip Saunders, Wolves president of basketball operations, said his team might be in the market for a veteran point guard.

He has arrived.

A source confirmed a report that Wolves had come to an agreement on a one-year contract with veteran Andre Miller, who visited the Wolves on Wednesday.

It marks an evolution in Saunders’ thinking. Immediately after moving up to draft former Apple Valley star Tyus Jones late in the first round of the draft, Saunders sounded like he might be happy with Jones as Ricky Rubio’s backup. But the fact that Rubio is coming off ankle surgery and Jones is a rookie ultimately changed Saunders’ mind.

“You don’t want to put the pressure on the young guys so much,” Saunders said two weeks ago. “Hey, listen, we’re always looking to upgrade. It could happen.”

And it did. Miller, 39, is nearing the end of a long career, but his experience should help both Rubio and Jones while giving the Wolves some peace of mind. Originally drafted with the eighth overall pick in the 1999 draft by Cleveland, the 6-2 Miller has averaged 12.8 points and 6.7 assists over 16 seasons while playing for seven teams. Last season between 81 games in Sacramento and Washington, Miller averaged 4.4 points and 3.5 assists per game.

***

No. 3: Matthews: Trail Blazers ‘never made an offer’: — There is no need for an autopsy on Wes Matthews‘ exit from Portland via free agency. He’s a Dallas Maverick now and apparently for good reason. Matthews told Jason Quick of the Oregonian that the Trail Blazers never made an offer to keep him, allowing the injured free agent to take the offer from the Mavericks and move on after being an integral part of the operation in Rip City.:

He had hoped he could return to the city that had embraced him, to the team with players he considered brothers, to the franchise where he grew into one of the NBA’s most well-rounded and respected shooting guards.

But in the end, after five seasons, the feeling was not mutual. He was greeted with silence. No phone call. No text messages. The Blazers never made an offer.

“I was pissed off,” Matthews said. “I felt disrespected.”

He believed he was a viable option for teams, even as he continued to rehabilitate a ruptured left Achilles tendon suffered in March. In the days leading up to free agency, Matthews’ camp released video to ESPN showing him jogging in place, utilizing lateral movement and shooting jumpers. He was, he wanted the league to know, ahead of the eight-month recovery time estimated by doctors.

A story also leaked that Matthews expected negotiations to start at $15 million a season, or almost $8 million more than he made last year.

It was a ghastly number for the Blazers, even though they could technically afford him. Paul Allen is the richest owner in sports, but after a lost era during which he paid more than a combined $100 million to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, only to see their knee injuries become chronic, Allen was wary of paying top dollar to a player coming off a serious injury.

The only chance the Blazers would pursue Matthews, top executive Neil Olshey later explained, was if free agent LaMarcus Aldridge chose to return, maintaining Portland as a playoff-caliber team. When Aldridge chose San Antonio, the Blazers decided to rebuild. Paying big money to a 29-year-old shooting guard coming off major surgery didn’t make long-term sense.

“I was angry,” Matthews said, “but I also realize that this is a business.”

He figured there would be trying times, with harsh realities, after he suffered his injury during the third quarter of a March 5 game against Dallas. Achilles injuries not only test one’s body, they challenge the mind.

He didn’t expect one challenge to come from the team to which he gave so much of his heart, so much of his sweat. Portland’s silence meant he was losing the greatest comfort of his career: a stable starting lineup, an adoring fan base and a rising profile.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Chuck Hayes is headed back to Houston on a partially guaranteed one-year deal … Tyus Jones, the hometown kid, is leading the summer caravan for the Minnesota Timberwolves … A couple of Trail Blazers are going a bit Hollywood this summer … Amir Johnson was convinced Celtics fans would love him before he joined the team

Morning shootaround — March 6


VIDEO: Highlights for games play March 5

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Blazers lose Matthews for season | Parker taking “baby steps” | What about JaVale? | Hawks meet Cavs tonight in battle of East’s best

No. 1: Blazers lose Matthews for season — The Portland Trail Blazers got a big win at home last night on TNT, beating another Western Conference playoff team, the Dallas Mavericks, 94-75. But the bigger story for the Blazers was the loss of starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews, who went down in the third quarter with a non-contact injury to his left leg. The Blazers eventually announced that Matthews had suffered a torn achilles and he would miss the rest of the season. Matthews had started every game this season for the Blazers, and was averaging 16.2 ppg. For a team with championship aspirations, the loss of Matthews will be tough to overcome, writes Jason Quick in the Oregonian

The injury is officially a ruptured Achilles, but to the Portland Trail Blazers, it was a breaking of their heart. To the people of Oregon a punch to the gut.

How important is Wesley Matthews to the Trail Blazers?

Owner Paul Allen, moments after Matthews was carried off the court, went back to the locker room to check on him. I’ve watched Greg Oden‘s knee explode. Watched Brandon Roy hobble off the court. And seen Rudy Fernandez carted out, immobilized on a stretcher.

And never have I seen Allen move from his courtside seat.

Matthews is that type of player.

He doesn’t just make three-pointers with the best of them. He makes this team.

He has an unbelievably positive attitude. Sometimes, I believe, he wills the Blazers out of slumps with his sheer belief that the Blazers are the best team in the West.

He holds teammates accountable, willing to call them out if he sees an effort, or an attitude, not meet his standards.

And he sets an admirable example with his tireless and determined work ethic. I’ve seen some great, hard-working professionals put on a Blazers uniform – Scottie Pippen, Joel Przybilla and Roy among them – and none of them outwork Matthews.

Few throughout the years have been as banged up as Matthews. He once played the last half of the season on an ankle the size of a grapefruit, waiting until after the season to have surgery. His elbow has been battered. His side has been bruised. And this season, he famously hyperextended his knee – elicting gasps from the Moda Center crowd – only to return later in the game, bringing a chuckle to coach Terry Stotts on the sideline.

Wesley Matthews is, quite frankly, the heart and soul of the Blazers.

And now, it no longer beats. Out for the rest of the season.

***

No. 2: Parker taking “baby steps” — One season ago, San Antonio’s Tony Parker finished sixth in MVP voting. This season, he’s struggled with injuries and, even after returning, hasn’t been able to consistently play the way he did last season. Now back and healthy, with the playoffs looming, Parker hopes the worst is behind him, writes Dan McCarney in the San Antonio Express-News

It was the type of move that has been seen only rarely from Tony Parker in his star-crossed 14th NBA season, a lightning quick crossover that left his defender grasping at air followed by an aggressive drive to the basket resulting in two free throws.

Coming against Sacramento’s Andre Miller, who will turn 39 in two weeks, Parker wasn’t about to gloat. After looking more than a little aged himself during his recent slump, how could he? No, he was pleased simply for a glimpse of his old self with 19 points in Wednesday’s victory over the Kings.

“I’m not going to take credit (for crossing Miller up),” he joked at practice on Thursday. “I’m just happy I shot 50 percent (8 for 14). Baby steps. Baby steps.”

And perspective. Two solid games, sandwiched around one dreadful performance, does not constitute a turnaround for Parker, just as the Spurs cannot be declared as having recaptured their championship mojo with a three-game win streak that includes two victories over the lowly Kings.

But unlike his 19-point outing at Sacramento last Friday, in which he scored 11 points in the fourth to inflate his production, Parker was steady pretty much throughout Wednesday’s rematch before the game got out of hand in the second half. Less important than the numbers was the manner in which they were produced, with Parker using the blend of mid-range shooting and around-the-rim accuracy that made him a six-time All-Star.

“(Coach Gregg Popovich) was joking, saying ‘I don’t remember the last time you shot a tear drop’ and I said, ‘You’re right,’” said Parker, who hit two of his trademark floaters in the third quarter alone.

“Sometimes you go through those times and you don’t know why you don’t know how to play basketball any more. It happens and so our job is to get back in rhythm, get back the way I was before I got hurt.”

***

No. 3: What about JaVale? — One of the better players to become available in the last few weeks was former Nuggets big man JaVale McGee, who was traded at the deadline to the Sixers and then waived on Sunday. Yesterday it appeared for a few hours as though McGee was heading to the Celtics, until that deal fell through. As Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski writes, McGee is apparently looking to land somewhere he can can control his contract next season, while teams that have been interested in McGee have wanted the same option…

McGee visited the Celtics this week and had been inclined to sign there, only to have his agent, B.J. Armstrong, and Celtics general manager Danny Ainge become unable to move past that deal point on Thursday afternoon.

For McGee, the plan is to sign a deal that provides him with a player option on the 2015-16 season – something teams, including Boston, would prefer to be a team option. That way, if McGee plays well, teams won’t be so vulnerable to lose him this summer.

McGee had courted interest from multiple playoff contenders, including the Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri signed McGee to a $48 million extension in Denver, and remains interested in offering him an opportunity to join the Raptors for a playoff run, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Nevertheless, McGee’s insistence on holding onto his freedom for the 2015-16 season could cause some teams to resist committing to him for the rest of this year and the playoffs.

***

No. 4: Hawks meet Cavs tonight in battle of East’s best — The Atlanta Hawks have spent this week celebrating franchise hero Dominique Wilkins, unveiling a statue and reminding everyone of how much he means to the franchise. But now the conversation turns back to the court, as tonight the Hawks host the red-hot Cleveland Cavaliers in what could be an Eastern Conference playoffs finals. And in Atlanta, they don’t mind pointing out that as good as Cleveland has been in the new year, the Hawks still have a healthy lead in the Eastern Conference, as Mark Bradley writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Hawks lead Cleveland, LeBron’s latest team, by 10 1/2 games with 22 to play. But the Cavaliers, to give them their due, have won 20 of 24 and beat Golden State last week and Toronto on Tuesday. Naturally, this has inspired many in the media to proclaim the Cavs the East’s best team — even if the standings don’t reflect anything of the sort.

Any sign of a Cleveland uptick was bound to become an uproar, given that the Cavs have LeBron and the hoops world revolves around him. And I’d also submit that the Hawks, who’ve won five straight after that post-All-Star flop-apalooza against the Raptors, aren’t playing quite as well as when they were winning 35 of 37. But it’s not like they’ve turned tail at the sound of LeBron’s approaching footsteps. This isn’t a team easily cowed.

If the Cavs win Friday, we’ll be treated to six weeks of the The-King-Has-Reclaimed-His-Throne stories. If the Hawks win, we’ll be buffeted with It’s-Only-A-Matter-Of-Time-Before-The-King-Reclaims-His-Throne. Because he’s LeBron, he and his team will always be granted the benefit of every doubt. But I have fewer doubts about these Hawks than I do LeBron’s Cavs. At last check, 48-12 trumps 39-24.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: After missing 8 free throws against the Rockets on Sunday, LeBron James has adjusted his free throw shooting formGoran Dragic loves the relationship he has with Dwyane Wade in Miami … The Timberwolves made some moves, picking up Justin Hamilton and waiving Glenn Robinson III … The Hawks have signed Jarrell Eddie from the D-League to a 10-day contract …

Mavs’ Kaleb Canales a true trail blazer

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

Kaleb Canales (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Kaleb Canales (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

If the name Kaleb Canales doesn’t ring a bell, it likely will soon. Think Erik Spoelstra. No one knew the two-time champion coach of the Miami Heat when he was living in the shadows of the franchise’s video room or as an assistant on the Heat bench.

Now everybody knows his name, as well as the fact that Spoelstra is the first Filipino-American to coach in the NBA.

Two seasons ago, Canales — born in Laredo, Texas and whose father is from Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas — became the first Mexican-American to lead an NBA team when he took over the Portland Trail Blazers as the interim coach for 23 games after the team fired Nate McMillan.

In the offseason, a month after his 34th birthday, Canales was one of two finalists to become the next coach of the Blazers. Despite the support of the players, the club passed on Canales’ youth for the experience of Terry Stotts, who had previously been a head coach and just celebrated winning the 2011 championship on Rick Carlisle‘s staff with the Dallas Mavericks.

Canales remained with the Blazers last season as a lead assistant and helped ease Stotts’ transition with his new players. When Mavericks assistant Jim O’Brien decided to step aside last summer, Carlisle hired Canales at Stotts’ recommendation.

The move ended a long relationship with a Blazers organization that gave him his shot and the tools to grow. But it also delivered Canales back to his home state, just a stone’s throw away from where his unique coaching ascension started on the ground floor as a student and then as a coach at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“So when I was in high school, I’m sure like every kid, I had a list of goals I made with a pen and pad — spiritual goals and professional goals and personal goals,” Canales said. “And one of my professional goals was to be a coach in the NBA. Obviously, when I told my friends that growing up in Laredo, it was like, ‘Yeah right,’ you know?”

What do those friends, most of whom live close enough to hop in their cars to come visit, say now?

“They all come to the games and ask me for tickets,” Canales laughed.

Paying his dues

How did a kid from Laredo, Texas, a heavily Hispanic-populated border city of a couple-hundred-thousand, make it to the NBA, and at such a young age? Those who know Canales say his boundless energy and enthusiasm, belief and perseverance paved the way.

“First of all, he has good spirit,” Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “He’s always into it with energy and he’s wholeheartedly always giving 100 percent. I think he put everybody in a good position and we loved him.”

Like Spoelstra — and, actually, with a little help from him — Canales accepted an internship in 2004 with the Trail Blazers to work in their video room. It was unpaid, but it counted as credit toward the Master’s degree he earned online from Virginia Commonwealth University while coaching at UTA.

“I started doing a lot of research on how coaches were getting opportunities to coach,” Canales said. “I read Erik’s bio, I read a bunch of assistant coaches’ bios, I read John Loyer from Detroit; I saw video coordinator in their background. I knew that was something I could attack. I had some video experience at UTA. My first interview was with the Miami Heat. I know Erik last year [in an article], he was kind of nice because he said I wrote him a letter every week for a year. I think it was almost like every day for a year.”

Canales got an interview with the Heat and nailed it, but they politely told him they decided to hire from within. Impressed with him though, some phone calls were placed and Canales got an interview with, and then an offer from, the Blazers. He would quickly advance from unpaid intern to paid staffer as Portland’s video coordinator. Canales would pore over game film until his bleary, reddened eyes watered.

By the 2008-09 season he was promoted to assistant coach while keeping his duties as video coordinator. And by the next season he was out of the video room and fully immersed in player development as a full-fledged assistant. He was 30 years old.

“It started with Damon Stoudemire and Nick Van Exel for me and became LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy,” Canales said. “And it became Jerryd Bayless, it became Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard.”

From the start, he earned a reputation for having an insatiable appetite for work, practically living at the Blazers’ practice facility.

“He would watch film and work guys out, and at odd times of the night,” Aldridge said. “He wanted to make sure that if anybody came there at any time he would be there, so he would literally sleep at the practice court all the time. So if you came in at 12:30 [a.m.], he would be there. All basketball.

“When you ask him who is girlfriend is, he always says, ‘Spalding.'”

Learning from the best

Whatever free time comes his way, he typically spends it seeking out and studying other coaches. While still with the Blazers he made it a point to contact Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and attend summer workouts. He visited University of Oregon football practices before Chip Kelly left for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.

“I love studying coaches because I love studying leadership,” Canales said. “Watching and studying the practices of coach Carroll or coach Kelly, you see the energy from them, you see how they interact with their players and then you see them playing on Sunday. I went to an OTA [Organized Team Activities] in the summer with the Seahawks. I said, ‘Coach, it feels like you have a game Sunday,’ how sharp they were.”

Not much has changed in Canales’ hundred-mile-an-hour approach in his first season with the Mavs, a team that has improved throughout the year and is in a dogfight for one of the final playoff berths in the Western Conference.

Giving back

Canales plans to return to Laredo for a couple of weeks during the summer to visit with his mother, Alicia, his father, Victor, and his sister, Chantall, all of whom have become accustomed to rearranging the calendar to fit Canales’ busy schedule.

“We celebrate all the holidays in the summer,”  Canales said. “It’s like July 9 and we’re celebrating Thanksgiving or something. We try to get creative with that, understanding that this is a passion. It’s definitely a lifestyle and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

When he’s in Laredo, Canales runs a basketball camp for kids. It’s there he shares his stories and encourages the young campers, almost all of whom share a similar cultural heritage, to dream big. Canales said empowering Hispanic kids is a responsibility he takes seriously.

“You can’t be afraid not only to dream, but to dream big,” Canales said he tells the kids. “It’s a big-time responsibility, and I hope that kids can see my blessings and then see through faith and hard work that they can achieve their dream. It’s something I want them to really believe in.”

Before too long, much like Spoelstra’s rise from anonymity in the video room to the spotlight of the Heat’s lead chair, Canales may soon find himself making history.

“Obviously, looking down the road, I would love to have that opportunity again one day,” Canales said of getting another shot at an interview. “But that’s not where my concern is right now. I understand how blessed and fortunate I am, and I don’t take that for granted.”

Throughout the month of March, the NBA is celebrating Latin heritage through its Noches Ene-be-a program. For more information, click here

Timberwolves Dread ‘Next Man Down’ Repeat of Injuries

Luke Ridnour played 82 games for the Minnesota Timberwolves last season – yeah, he was the one – and 206 of a possible 230 in three seasons there, qualifying for some sort of iron-man award.

Owing perhaps to his relative lack of time in the Wolves’ trainers room, the Bucks’ 10-year veteran guard had no theories about that team’s miserable run of injuries and bad luck. But he wasn’t exactly surprised, either, when he learned Monday afternoon that his former teammate, Minnesota forward Chase Budinger, was hurt again.

“When I was in Minnesota, everyone was hurt,” Ridnour said. “I don’t know what the deal is but … we had a good team but when you get banged up, it’s hard to do anything.”

That’s why the latest about Budinger was so potentially demoralizing: The Wolves announced Tuesday that the small forward underwent surgery on his left knee for a meniscectomy, performed by noted sports orthopedist Dr. James Andrews in Pensacola, Fla. Last November, Budinger suffered a lateral meniscus tear in the same knee and missed 59 games, returning only for the final four weeks of the season. He was thought to be nearly full strength for camp but now will be out indefinitely.

And it’s only natural that, given the recent snake-bit history, other Wolves might be glancing sideways, wondering who’s next. Coach Rick Adelman talked at Media Day Monday about the road – to emergency rooms and operating arenas – that none of them wants to go down, as reported by Mark Remme on the team’s Web site:

On Monday at Target Center, Wolves coach Rick Adelman said Budinger is a tough loss at small forward to start the season. That entire crew projected to play the 3—Corey Brewer, Derrick Williams, Shabazz Muhammad—is either new to the team or to the position. Budinger was the most experienced player at that position within Adelman’s system. Brewer is the favorite for the starting nod.

“I just felt so bad for [Budinger],” Adelman said. “He’s the type of player who can really add to what we do offensively. I feel bad for him, and I really don’t want it to become a trend. With last year it really became a trend.”

To be specific, Minnesota lost 341 “man games” to injuries in 2012-13, led by Brandon Roy‘s 76, Kevin Love‘s 64, Malcolm Lee‘s 63 and Budinger’s 59. Point guard Ricky Rubio missed 24 in his return season from ACL/LCL surgery the previous spring. Even Adelman, who cobbled together 16 different starting lineups, missed games in midseason while attending to his wife Mary Kay‘s medical condition.

High hopes of ending an eight-year playoff drought fizzled into a 31-51 record and 12th place finish in the Western Conference.

“Basketball, [injuries are] part of the game,” said Ridnour, who started all 82. “A lot of ours, they were just freak deals. A broken bone? You can’t do anything about that. Bone spur, you can’t do anything about that. Kevin Love’s [twice-broken] hand – it wasn’t even during practice. So it’s just freak deals.”

Various tongue-in-cheek theories about the franchise’s bad luck have been floated at moments of past breakdowns, such as here and here. Several NBA teams, including the Wolves this season, have bulked up their strength and conditioning staffs, and some are exploring advanced analytics that might apply to training and physiology. But good fortune and pacing might play considerable roles, too.

Said Ridnour: “You look at the teams that do well, they stay healthy. Most of the time – the top seven guys play the majority of the season. It’s a grind. That’s something that’s made San Antonio so successful, knowing how to keep their older guys fresh. You look at ’em, those guys stay healthy. They don’t care what [resting guys] looks like.”

Some of the biggest storylines in the NBA as camps open involve injury comebacks, from Love and Chicago’s Derrick Rose to OKC’s Russell Westbrook, Boston‘s Rajon Rondo and Lakers star Kobe Bryant. And just for the record, none of the 30 organizations is immune.

Moments after Ridnour talked about the Wolves, an old pal from his first stint in Milwaukee ambled out of the locker room. Small forward Carlos Delfino, who fractured a bone in his right foot during Houston’s first-round series, signed a three-year, $9.75 million contract as a free agent to return to the Bucks. He still was in a walking boot Monday, will miss all of camp and has a return date as indefinite as Budinger’s.

Summer Dreaming: Comeback Player

HANG TIME, Texas — Officially, the NBA has not recognized a Comeback Player of the Year since the 1984-85 season.

But these are the dog days of August, this is just an exercise in summer daydreaming and that means, well, we can pretty much do whatever we want.

Besides, it’s so rare that we have so many big name players on the mend, several with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.

So grab a seat in the shade and let’s run my top candidates for a make-believer honor — the 2013-14 Comeback Player of the Year:

Kobe Bryant, Lakers — Yes, it’s still all speculation at this point, and even Bryant has said that he’s not sure he’ll be ready yet for opening night. But if, at 35, he somehow gets back onto the court less than a year after tearing his Achilles’ tendon and manages to come close to being the beast of his former self, Kobe will have eclipsed Adrian Peterson as a modern medical marvel and raised his already considerable legacy way past Michael Jordan‘s “flu game.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets — Can a guy who averaged 17.1 points and led the league in rebounding (12.4 rpg) last season really be considered a comeback candidate? He can if he’s this guy, who could only have taken more abuse if he’d played every game with a “Kick Me” sign taped to the back of his jersey. A return from back surgery and an in-season shoulder injury contributed to Howard’s lost season in L.A. A healthy and happy season in Houston could produce fireworks.

Derrick Rose, Bulls — He hasn’t played in an NBA game since April 28, 2012 and he may not return immediately to his old MVP form on opening night. But there are reasons to expect that Rose will want to use this season to make a loud statement about himself as a competitor and warrior. First of all, he is both of those things. Second, he heard all the sideline critics complain that he was soft or afraid or something less than a team player by not returning at the end of last season. If anyone has a point to prove about who he is, it’s Rose.

Kevin Love, Timberwolves — Flip the calendar back 12 months and there was so much for Love to anticipate in the year ahead, especially coming off his success at the World Championship. Not the broken right hand in training camp. Not breaking it again in January. Not the surgery on his left knee that ended any chance of a late return. Love averaged 18.3 points and 14 rebounds in the 18 games he played. Teammates Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger all suffered injuries in a lost season for the Wolves. Now it’s Love who’s champing at the bit to lead the comeback that could get Minnesota into the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Rajon Rondo, Celtics — When he gets back out onto the court, should we start calling him “Domino?” After all, think of all the dominoes that fell after he tore his ACL and had to be shut down for the season in January? That’s the way former teammate Paul Pierce views it. Rondo’s injury ended the Celtics’ real hopes of being playoff contenders or at least spoilers. Rondo’s injury likely led to the trading of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets. Rondo’s injury led to coach Doc Rivers wanting out of a rebuilding project. Rondo’s injury brought rookie coach Brad Stevens to Boston. Now Rondo gets to be the big dog who runs his own show and there’s no doubt he’ll bark loud.

Danny Granger, Pacers — On a team that already pushed the Heat to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals and is feeling more confident from the experience, how much of a boost could they get if the former All-Star forward can return to form? Granger played only five games last season after having surgery for patellar tendinosis. He said he expects to be back in the starting lineup. But even if he winds up coming off the bench, a Pacers team that sometimes had trouble putting points on the board will welcome the help.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder — Sure, it happened in the playoffs. Sure, he had never missed a single game in his NBA career until that night when he had the run-in with the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley. That doesn’t make it any less significant. The loss of Westbrook ended any real hope of the Thunder getting back to The Finals and maybe it quieted some of the carping complainers who love nothing more than to pick at the flaws in his game. Will the torn meniscus slow down any of his freakishly physical play or seemingly superhuman sorties to the rim? Doubt it.

Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers — With all the attention focused on free agent Andrew Bynum and No. 1 draft pick Anthony Bennett, the return of Varejao to the Cleveland lineup could be just as critical at making a run at the playoffs. The 30-year-old was averaging career highs of 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds in 25 games last season before tearing a quadriceps muscle in January and then requiring further surgery when a blood clot developed in his lung. Coach Mike Brown says the perpetual motion machine might start at power forward and that could get him back to making a run at his first All-Star berth.

Andrew Bynum, Cavaliers — If any player ever needed a comeback, it’s the big man who was a key part in the four-team trade between the Lakers, Magic, Nuggets and Sixers in the summer of 2012. Those chronic knee problems that had always made his future a big question mark in L.A. kept him on the sidelines but not out of the limelight all last season in Philly. He showed off flashy hairstyles. He went bowling. He just didn’t play. Now that Jan. 7 cutoff date to be on the Cavs roster that guarantees the other half of this season’s $12.25 million contract should be some real motivation.

PREVIOUSLY: MVP | Coach of the Year | Sixth Man of the Year | Defensive Player of Year | Most Improved Player | Rookie Of Year

Kirilenko Opt-Out Leaves Void For Wolves

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Andrei Kirilenko
reportedly informed the Timberwolves of his decision to opt-out of next year’s contract while vacationing in the south of France.

This is not to be confused with South France Ave., a main north-south thoroughfare in the western Minneapolis suburbs where, the locals will tell you, the nation’s first fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall (Southdale, 1956) is situated.

There is a reason for the fully enclosed and climate-controlled stuff, which dovetails nicely into the Kirilenko decision.

Having the veteran Russian forward say nyet to the $10.2 million he had guaranteed for 2013-14 technically frees up some salary-cap space for new Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders as the NBA free agent market opens at 11:01 p.m. Twin Cities time. It fuels visions of this-or-that flashy signing, whether it’s O.J. Mayo to address the team’s ongoing hole at shooting guard or some other targeted player.

But there’s a careful-what-you-wish-for aspect to this, too.

After all, this is Minnesota we’re talking about, hardly a magnet market for NBA free agents. Most visiting players who come to town quickly focus on the fully enclosed, climate-controlled skyway system that allows them, if they dare venture off the fully enclosed, climate-controlled team bus, to navigate a few blocks in any direction from their road hotel.

Many players drafted by or traded to Minnesota learn about the reasons behind all that enclosing and climate-controlling and opt to play their basketball elsewhere.

It’s a terrific place to live and raise a family – I lived there for 24 years – but for one reason or another (legacy of mediocrity, coaching changes, Kevin Garnett‘s storm-cloud scowl upon departure), it’s a tough sell to players who can select their destination. Most of the Wolves’ free agent “successes” have come from overpaying (for instance, giving Mike James four years instead of three and $25 million) or doing some other favor for the player. Like paying Brandon Roy to get hurt again.

The idea of having money freed up beyond the league’s mid-level salary exception is intriguing. For Saunders, it’s a chance to wheel-and-deal and perhaps make up a little for a muddied draft night.

But the odds are against the Wolves signing a player for 2013-14 who’ll be more productive than Kirilenko was for them in 2012-13.

A year removed from the NBA after spending 2011-12 in Russia, the former Utah Jazz forward put up numbers remarkably similar to his career stats: 14.0 points on 50.7 percent shooting, 6.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks pro-rated to 36 minutes per game. He ranked second on the team in minutes, was third in scoring average (12.4), blocked more shots than starting center Nikola Pekovic and had more steals than J.J. Barea or Luke Ridnour. The Wolves were 26-38 in the games Kirilenko played, 5-13 when he was out.

His abilities to cut and to see cutters were vital to coach Rick Adelman’s system, especially with teammates such as Kevin Love and Chase Budinger missing significant time. Kirilenko, who turned 32 in February, was a steady influence, too, on Russian rookie Alexey Shved and in general a grown-up voice in the locker room. Kirilenko and Shved, frankly, may have been former boss David Kahn’s two shrewdest moves.

It’s possible but not likely he would re-sign with the Wolves, based on Star Tribune beat writer Jerry Zgoda‘s update Saturday:

Kirilenko is seeking a three- or four-year extension because he believes this might be the last chance to negotiate the last big contract of his career.

You can bet Flip Saunders won’t offer anything more than two years, and at a salary considerably less than $10 million.

Still, the Wolves might wind up missing Kirilenko’s versatility and production at both ends of the floor. They could do a lot worse because, well, they have.

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 2

Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.

The one recap to watch: That big, annual pro football championship game (I think it’s called the Super Bowl, right?) last night ensured no other games of note took place before the 6:30 ET kickoff. That said, there were only three games on Sunday (all matinees), so our pick of the day goes to Clippers-Celtics. Boston isn’t exactly crying itself to sleep after losing Rajon Rondo for the season as it has gone 4-0 in the Rondo-less stage of the season. Paul Pierce showed of his “Truth-iness” to the Clips — Matt Barnes got a good look in particular — by nailing the game-sealing step-back 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left over Barnes to halt L.A.’s hopes of a last-minute comeback win.

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News of the morning

Howard unsure if he’ll play on Tuesday | Celtics meet with Oden | Pistons fans called out | Bosh gets traditional Toronto greeting | Wolves’ Roy at crossroads

Howard won’t rush backDwight Howard sat out Sunday afternoon’s game in Detroit because of lingering pain in his right shoulder due to his torn labrum. He continues to take a day-by-day approach to his availability for the Lakers, but told the Orange County Register’s Kevin Ding he’s not going to hurry back just to get hurt again:

“It feels a little bit better, but still sore,” Howard said Sunday. “Certain movements hurt, and I don’t want to go there in any pain or go out there thinking about it too much.”

Howard aggravated the torn labrum Wednesday in Phoenix. It wasn’t the first time, and the pain fades after each aggravation, but Howard remains leery of another incident.

“It’s still not there yet,” he said. “I’m not going to try to rush myself back and have the possibility of hurting it again. There’s no need for that.”

Howard had a platelet-rich plasma injection into the shoulder Saturday. That treatment isn’t expected to provide immediate relief, but Howard’s shoulder has naturally felt better in days after each aggravation. The tear isn’t going to go away whether he takes a game, a week or the rest of the season off.

“Me and Kobe play two different positions,” Howard said. “The position I play, I use a lot of force coming up — whether that’s going up for a dunk or a shot. Hook shots, all that stuff, is this motion right here. It’s a lot of that. Playing in the post is doing this a lot.

“All that stuff, you need your shoulder stable for it. It’s a little bit different than, I would say, a guard position. You’ve got guys 260-270 you’re holding off. You’ve got to be really strong in your shoulder and all that stuff.”

Howard said it hurts him raising his arm up and especially backwards: “A lot of movements I’d be doing in games, trying to block shots, stuff like that.” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni acknowledged that Howard should try to work on not bringing the ball down so low under the basket, which is how opponents have hurt the shoulder repeatedly. Howard said he needs to be in a “stable” position to decrease the chance for aggravation.

D’Antoni said previously this seven-game trip will be the “telling tale” of the Lakers’ season. About Howard not playing Sunday, the third game of a previously 1-1 trip, D’Antoni said it was “his call.” About the labrum tear, D’Antoni said: “It’s not going to go away.”

Where have all the Pistons fans gone?In the annals of NBA history, one of the more underrated Finals matchups — in terms of on-court play, dislike of each other’s city and so forth — has to be Pistons vs. Lakers. Three Finals matchups (with the Pistons taking two of those) will create some animosity toward each other, but that’s not the case now. As Terry Foster of The Detroit News points out, there were more Kobe Bryant and Lakers fans in yesterday’s Lakers-Pistons matinee at The Palace at Auburn Hills than there were Pistons fans:

We saw another shameful performance at The Palace on Sunday. This time, it didn’t come from the Pistons, who actually played with spirit and nearly stole a game from the resurgent Los Angeles Lakers.We witnessed the annual migration of Kobe Bryant lovers who wore his jersey and cheered his every move. Thanks to Pistons guard Will Bynum it was not a total sham. He ignited the Pistons and even turned Lakers fans into Pistons blue.

Let’s talk about the real losers. They are Pistons fans who turned The Palace into Staples Center East, the Lakers’ home away from home. Many came dressed in Lakers gold and purple and they cheered as loudly for Bryant as anything the Pistons did for much of the game. There were banners and signs for Bryant but few for the Pistons.

I don’t know what ignited the crowd more. Was it the Earl Clark dunk off a Bryant inbounds pass to end the first half? Or was it when Bryant dunked over Brandon Knight and stared at the crowd?

This was a repeat of a few weeks ago when LeBron James came to town for loud cheers. People wore James jerseys and cheered a man this town once said it hated. It wasn’t always this way but the passion for the Pistons changed over the years.

Michael Jordan used to get booed in this building. People hated him and his Picasso-looking sidekick Scottie Pippen. But later in his career, even after Jordan destroyed the two-time champion Bad Boys and said they were bad for basketball, Jordan was forgiven and lauded.

James swept the Pistons in the 2009 playoffs and Piston fans sent him off to “MVP” chants after he scored 36 points against the home team. Even when the Pistons beat Bryant and the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals he refused to credit the Pistons for his subpar series.

So why do you cheer a guy like this?

Celtics meet with Oden — It’s been a rough week or so in Boston, what with Rajon Rondo lost for the season and, then, rookie big man Jared Sullinger (back) out now, too. Sullinger’s agent, David Falk, says his client having surgery now is the best thing for the Celtics’ long-term plans … but that doesn’t make Boston fans feel better today. What might, though, is the notion of former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden in Celtic green. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe has the details on both Sullinger’s future and the prospect of Oden: 

Sullinger was flagged with back issues during an NBA pre-draft examination, causing him to drop to the Celtics with the 21st overall pick. Falk said Sullinger’s condition was corrected with Friday’s surgery, and he is expected to return to basketball activities in six months.

Sullinger was examined twice by a back specialist in Philadelphia prior to the draft.

“The Celtics knew when they drafted him there was a certain level of risk that required surgery, as did several other teams,” said Falk. “Some teams treated it like he was going to have a heart attack or something. [The Celtics’] Brian McKeon is one of the most confident team doctors I’ve ever dealt with. There were so secrets, nobody was trying to hide any facts. There was a possibility that he could require surgery, but the recovery time is less than an ACL.”

Falk said the Celtics could have delayed the surgery by giving Sullinger anti-inflammatories and treatment, but wanted to take the safer approach.

“Jared’s 20 years old, to try to take a short-term risk could jeopardize his career long term. Having surgery was the most appropriate response,” Falk said. “Had he tried to continue to play and aggravate it six or eight weeks down the road, he would have missed the playoffs and the start of the season. It was a calculated decision.”

The Celtics met Saturday with free agent center Greg Oden at their training facility in Waltham. Oden, who has not played since December 2009 because of recurring knee problems, is expected to return to the NBA next season. He met with coach Doc Rivers, who said the two talked about Oden’s AAU days with the Indy Heat, a team that also featured Josh McRoberts, Mike Conley, and Daequan Cook.

“I said hi to him,” said Rivers. “We reminisced about high school days when I watched him on AAU.”

The Celtics have no expiring contracts, so they would likely need to create a salary slot for Oden, who is expected to sign for more than the veteran’s minimum.

Raptors fans never forgetLike Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady before him, Chris Bosh is learning just how good Raptors fans are at holding a grudge. Bosh left Toronto as a free agent in the summer of 2010 to join forces with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami and Raptors fans haven’t let Bosh forget it. The same greeting was routinely cast upon Carter and McGrady, both ex-Raptors, on their returns to Toronto for many years after their respective departures. Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has more:

It’s been nearly three years since Bosh decided to leave Toronto, yet the sting remains for the fans. They booed him every time he touched the ball despite this being Bosh’s fourth return to face his former team.

“Yeah, I’m a little surprised,” Bosh said. “They (fans) pay their money. They can do what they want. I hope they just remember the good times.”

Bosh said the jeers served as his motivation, especially in the second half when he scored 22 of his 28 points.

“I was hearing a lot from the fans,” Bosh said. “I thank them for continuing to stay on me and calling me names. That helped my focus a lot. I was like, `I need to get in this game to shut them up.”‘

Roy pondering his futureThe injury bug has been frequent visitor to the Timberwolves, who have seen Brandon Roy, Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic and Alexey Shved (among others) miss valuable time this season. In the case of Roy, who hasn’t played since a 14-minute stint on Nov. 9, the prospects of a return are unclear. He’s still rehabbing after having knee surgery and the process of getting better has left Roy wondering what to do next if his comeback attempt fails. Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com has the details:

The plan for the Minnesota Timberwolves guard was to make his return to action Feb. 1 against the Los Angles Lakers at Target Center, after having two successful workout days. After that, he would join the team for practices leading up to the game.

Friday’s session went as planned. Saturday’s didn’t.

While performing a move in the first 20 minutes of the workout, he felt something in his right knee that he has felt far too often. He tweaked it, eliminating any possibility of him returning to action before the All-Star break.

“As soon as it happened, in my head, I said ‘I quit. I just quit,” an emotional Roy told CSNNW.com. “That was my first thought, that I couldn’t do this anymore.

“I’m at a crossroad in my career.”

He’s certain that if he can’t get right this season, it will be the end of his career. And he’s fine with that.

“I look at it like this has got to be the last season,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets because I know I tried to give it another season. So me saying this has to be the last season, it’s not as difficult as it was last year. I tried. I gave it that last effort and it’s time to move on. I’m at that range to where I’m at peace with things.”

After attempting this comeback and giving it his all, he realized that he has more to offer than just his physical talents. Roy’s game wasn’t predicated on beating defenders off the dribble or blowing by them with his speed. He was a thinker on the court who knew how to make plays without being the most athletic player in the world.

It took some time for Roy to find himself beyond playing basketball, but he says that thanks to prayer, family and friends, he has received a new calling.

Post-playing career, I now introduce you to Coach Roy.

“Now, I think there’s something in me that I can offer to basketball. There’s a message that I can bring to basketball. I wasn’t the fastest, the highest jumper, but my knowledge of the game helped me be an effective player at a high level,” Roy said. “Coaching at the NBA level is where I see myself. If this season is it for me, I’m not staying away from basketball. I would want to get in as soon as possible.”

On the Trail Blazers’ bench?

“Maybe one day,” he said. “My knowledge of the game and understanding of chemistry, I think that stuff, I can offer. These young kids today are good, but they lack those things.”

ICYMI of the night: Impressive inbounds play there, Lakers, and a great pass from Kobe Bryant to Earl Clark for the buzzer-beating dunk. Still pales in comparison to our all-time favorite version of this play:

Howard Hopes PRP Helps Shoulder Heal

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Dwight Howard is the latest athlete to give PRP –platelet-rich plamsa — therapy a whirl.

The Los Angeles Lakers will play at Minnesota Friday night, but Howard left the team to return to Los Angeles. He will see Dr. Steven Yoon and undergo the PRP procedure on Saturday, the team announced, in hopes of speeding up the recovery of his injured right shoulder.

Howard will then fly to Detroit and rejoin the team, although his status for Sunday’s game against the Pistons is unclear.

PRP has been around for more than a decade, but mostly relegated to athletes or patients with exceedingly deep pockets. Athletes in all sports have undergone the procedure, from golf’s Tiger Woods, tennis’ Rafael Nadal, baseball’s Alex Rodriguez and football’s Troy Palamalu, among many others.

In 2011, Kobe Bryant flew to Germany to undergo what was called a derivative of the PRP procedure on his right knee. Last offseason it was reported that injured 76ers center Andrew Bynum would also undergo PRP in Germany. Brandon Roy, forced into retirement by chronic knee issues, had the procedure, and it helped him decide to attempt a comeback with the Minnesota Timberwolves, although he has been beset by multiple setbacks.

In Howard’s case, he is seeking to avoid surgery during the season to repair his sore right shoulder, the same injury that kept him out of three games in January. Howard had been playing through the pain until he re-aggravated the injury during the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s ugly loss at Phoenix.

So what is PRP?

The procedure utilizes platelets from the athletes’ own blood to rebuild a damaged tendon. It has been successful in relieving pain and jumpstarting the healing process. The patient’s blood is drawn and placed in a centrifuge for 15 minutes to separate out the platelets. The layer of platelet-rich plasma is then injected into the affected portion of the tendon with the guidance of an ultrasound machine.

There is a short recovery period so Howard might not be able to play in Sunday’s game. Obviously the hope is that it will alleviate Howard’s pain and help his shoulder heal enough so that he can continue to play throughout the season as the Lakers fight for playoff positioning.

L.A. had its modest three-game winning streak snapped at Phoenix on Wednesday night. At 20-26, the Lakers enter tonight’s game at Minnesota four games behind Houston for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Although Howard has had an up-and-down season, he still remains the Lakers’ best hope to make a playoff push. He’s a defensive anchor on a team that struggled all season at that end. He’s second on the team in scoring behind Bryant at 16.5 ppg and he leads the team in rebounding at 11.9 rpg.

The Lakers lost all three games that Howard missed in January, losing to Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

While PRP is not a miracle cure by any stretch, it might be Howard’s best — and last chance — to salvage the season.

Kirilenko Invaluable To Wolves, Shved

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DALLAS — Andrei Kirilenko has been a godsend to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Russian rookie Alexey Shved during this strange twist of a season.

It’s a minor miracle that the Wolves are still sniffing playoff contention considering their barrage of injuries. One major reason is Kirilenko, the 11-year NBA veteran who is in his first season with the Wolves after a decade-long run with the Utah Jazz. He spent the 2011-12 season enjoying a one-time homecoming in Russia, playing before family and friends during the NBA’s lockout and shortened season.

The versatile, 6-foot-9 forward was always going to figure in as a major piece to the rotation, but he’s been invaluable in the wake of long-term injuries to forwards Chase Budinger and Kevin Love, among multiple other injuries such as to Brandon Roy and Malcolm Lee that have thrust the surprising Shved into a starter’s role at shooting guard.

“We had some seasons when we had a lot of injuries, but this is something crazy,” said Kirilenko, whose scoring (13.4 ppg), rebounds (6.8) and minutes (34.8) are all his best since the 2005-06, and his 50.8 shooting percentage ranks as a career high. “We never played together [with a full roster] for even one game. It’s tough to play that way, but I guess this is the reality of NBA basketball.”

Then there’s been the big brother role Kirilenko’s embraced mentoring Shved, who turned 24 last month. But with a baby face and a mouth full of braces, some might say Shved could could pass for, well, a 12-year-old. Which is exactly how old he was when he first met Kirilenko and asked Russia’s No. 1 basketball player to sign a picture for him.

“He’s a great guy and he has a lot of bright moments in front of him,” said Kirilenko, who turns 32 next month and beams at Shved more like a proud papa than a big brother. “I think he started the season well and he can really be a great contributor to a team.”

Two-thirds of Russia’s NBA contingent play for the Wolves. Timofey Mozgov, currently buried on the Denver Nuggets’ bench, is the other. Kirilenko and Shved know each other quite well now after playing last season together for CSKA Moscow, and the two fashioned quite a dynamic duo on the Russian Olympic team that put hoops back on the map in their country by taking bronze in London.

They were gearing up for the Games when Shved, signed as a free agent by Minnesota in July, got word that he would continue on as Kirilenko’s teammate in Minnesota.

“He is the best player in Russia,” said the 6-foot-6 Shved, whose game (10.8 ppg and 4.7 apg) has emerged quicker than his grasp of the English language, which he speaks softly and carefully. “He is smart, he plays hard. Everybody wants to be a player like this.”

Just as Spanish-speaking J.J. Barea (from Puerto Rico) aided the Spain-born phenom Ricky Rubio last season in his arrival stateside, having Kirilenko around to show Shved the ropes of the NBA and American life has been invaluable.

And who knows, perhaps soon Shved will serve a similar role to another wide-eyed countryman that makes his way to the NBA.

Sergey Karasev might be the next [one],” Kirilenko said of the 6-foot-7, 19-year-old shooting guard who averages 18.7 points and 6.3 rebounds for Triumph Lyubertsy in the Russian Professional Basketball League. “He might be joining us soon.”

Love’s Latest Injury Testing Wolves’ Mettle

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — So this is just how it’s going to be for the Minnesota Timberwolves, a season so marred by constant injury that it stands to test their collective sanity as much as their ambitious playoff aspirations.

The Wolves already knew they’re moving ahead without star forward Kevin Love for a second stretch of games after he re-fractured his right hand last week, but Wednesday’s news that he’ll miss more time than expected, the next eight to 10 weeks, severely worsened that blow just one day after the sigh-of-relief return of point guard Ricky Rubio from his second injury stint.

Love initially broke his hand before the start of the season doing knuckle pushups at home. He missed the first nine games of the season and the Wolves, without their two young stars, were pleased to be 5-4 when Love surprised everyone with an early return.

A stunning spat of injuries followed. Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger and Malcolm Lee remain out with knee injuries. Rubio played in just his sixth game in Tuesday’s hard-fought home win over the Atlanta Hawks to push their record to 16-15, just 1 1/2 games out of the West’s final playoff spot. The Wolves played that one without resolute coach Rick Adelman — out for personal reasons — as they will again tonight trying to stay above .500 in a tough road test at Oklahoma City.

Coaches impress on their players all the time that the 82-game NBA grind is about survival. Expected to be without Love, their leading scorer (18.3 ppg) and by far most productive rebounder (14. 0 rpg), until mid-to-late March, the Wolves are truly in the fox hole now.

They’ll carry through the high hopes of its long-suffering fan base and secure the franchise’s first postseason berth since their lone Western Conference finals run in 2003-04 only by sticking together and pushing harder.

Rubio’s return is a good start. He played 19 minutes on Tuesday and finished with four points and eight assists. He missed the previous four games with back spasms, an issue believed to be caused by overcompensation as he learns to trust the surgically repaired left knee. He’s dealt with the groin and back problems since making his debut on Dec. 15 from last season’s ACL tear.

Adelman and the team’s training staff will have to closely monitor his minutes and progress, but the belief is he’s ready to ramp up and burden a bigger load.

To keep within arm’s length of a playoff spot to this point, the Wolves have heavily relied upon stat-stuffing forward Andrei Kirilenko, center Nikola Pekovic, who has eight double-doubles in last 13 games, emerging Russian rookie Alexey Shved and the diminutive backcourt duo of Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea.

But how long can they keep up the fight in a competitive Western Conference that could take 45 wins to get in?

And which team or teams drop off? The top four, barring catastrophic injury — something the Wolves know never to discount — seem like locks. Golden State is playing well enough and for long enough to not expect a collapse in the second half of the season.

Of the next three teams — Houston, Portland and Denver — none are sure bets, yet the trio is currently on a collective 10-game winning streak.

And lost among the crowd currently on the outside looking in is the Los Angeles Lakers. A glorious run back into contention doesn’t appear imminent, but can’t be eliminated as a possibility either simply because of their proven talent.

The Wolves have expended tremendous energy to stay afloat. How much longer can they grind away? Long enough for Love’s eventual return to be meaningful?

We’re about to find out.