MINNEAPOLIS If you own a pro basketball team, particularly a moribund one, then players like Blake Griffin and Kevin Love are manna. Personable, each with a sly sense of humor, a unique game and not the least bit full of themselves, they are the cornerstones on and off the court of a resurrection in Los Angeles and a resurgence in the Twin Cities.
No wonder they also happen to get along fabulously, since they first met in high school. They filmed a spoof last summer on their new jobs during the lockout for an awards show and hammed it up in a You Tube video during a duel in Jenga, the game of removing wooden building blocks from a tower.
In those instances, there appears to be an easy chemistry between the two, as if they have long been comrades instead of competitors.
Perhaps because of that rapport rather than in spite of it, Love and Griffin are developing a rivalry that promises to be one of the more interesting in the NBA, a complex one with many layers that were on display Monday night when Love's Timberwolves hung on for a 95-94 victory over Griffin's Clippers.
The outcome turned on Chris Paul missing the last of three free throws with 2.7 seconds that would have tied the score, but the central figures were the two power forwards.
Love, who earlier this season vanquished the Clippers with a 3-pointer at the buzzer, showed off a game that is as sublime as Griffin's is ridiculous, torching Los Angeles for 39 points and 17 rebounds. He made five 3-pointers, then bulled his way into the lane to deliver a jump hook that proved to be the winning basket.
Griffin did his best to keep pace, but his 26 points, 12 rebounds and jaw-dropping athleticism were not enough to offset Love or Griffin's own rough edges, seven missed free throws and a late technical foul.
"It already is a rivalry" Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "They're both All-Stars, both totally different types of players. Both obviously are very competitive. They're two of the top forwards in the game."
Kobe Bryant recently sniffed that he doesn't have a rival, which may have been a swipe at LeBron James, but how easy is it to develop any real drama when you only play twice a year, and never in the playoffs? James and Kevin Durant may be more contemporaries and both very much in their prime but they, too, are separated by geography, one in the East, the other in the West. Derrick Rose might be a worthy foil to James, but they rarely guard each other.
It was easy to see Monday night how Griffin and Love might evolve into something more.
They are each trying to drag a woebegone franchise into relevance, they play the same position, yet their games are diametrically opposed Griffin a Slam Dunk contest champion whose advantage is his stunning athleticism and Love a 3-Point Shooting contest winner, who has a veteran's skill and savvy.
This was brought into sharp relief on several occasions in the fourth quarter, when
Love would meticulously work in the post or at the elbow, sinking a shot. Then, at the other end, Griffin would spin away from his defender and dunk with such force that it drew oooohs from the visiting crowd.
Griffin and Love are among the 20 finalists to represent the United States at the Olympics this summer, so when do practice with each other as they have at the All-Star Game or back in high school at the McDonald's All-America Game there is some taking stock of the other.
"Yeah, I think it's human nature, I think it's competitive nature as well," Love said. "You always want to be better than the next guy. I'm not going to sit here and say I don't want to be better than Blake Griffin because I do.
"I want to be better than everybody else in the league, especially at my position. If I feel like if I do, I'm going to help my team win. I want to win, and I want to be the best player in my league at my position and be the best player in the league, if it's possible."
Griffin was frustrated with the loss, which dropped the Clippers to 2-2 on their trip and a half-game behind the Lakers in the Pacific Division, and with himself. He said the technical foul he received with 2:22 left after he was fouled going up for a dunk by Luke Ridnour was out of frustration.
"I just walked by the the referee and thanked him for calling one," Griffin said. "I think he had gotten a little fed up. It's not my place to talk about what happened between us and him, our whole team really. When you feel backed into a corner, you make a call like that. I have to do a better job of controlling my emotions."
Asked if he can learn from playing with or against Love, Griffin said he could, but did not want to be viewed as too deferential.
"I try to take things from good players all around the league," he said. "There's a reason why they're as good as they are not just mimic them, but see why they're successful."
Paul said this is it how it works for players. The good ones are always studying, eager to pick up whatever they can for an edge whether it's playing with somebody, against them or simply watching. In a sense, he said, evolution in his craft is no different than others.
"We all watch enough basketball," Paul said. "You have ideas what guys are capable of. This is our profession. You know other writers and you know their work when you see them. We know what guys are capable of on the basketball court. I don't think about it too much right now, but my first time playing with Steve Nash, I've got to go out and prove myself."
Ultimately, Love and Griffin know that they will be defined by winning, and so will their rivalry. The Timberwolves, who have won the first three of their four scheduled meetings with the Clippers are 20-19 and, to the surprise of much of the NBA, have crept to the edge of the playoff race, sitting in ninth place in the Western Conference.
There are more than six weeks left until the playoffs begin, and it is not out of the realm in the tightly packed conference that these teams could meet again, when the stakes will be higher, and basketball games with consequences may, for the dueling protagonists, seem like much more.