MINNEAPOLIS He didn't look the part of the injured star, the perpetrator of the bungled season, the missing piece around which everything was built.
No, on Saturday Kevin Love looked like any other NBA player warming up before a late-season game. His cheeks were flushed, his hairline sweaty, his shorts and T-shirt rumpled. But this was no healthy player preparing to take the court. The name Kevin Love has not been synonymous with health for quite some time.
Something happened this week, though. The Timberwolves and Love came clean, and something changed. Love has had knee problems, too, they admitted, knee problems that had been plaguing him since February. He had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Wednesday, extracting what he described as a substantial chunk of scar tissue, and the plate in his right hand was also removed that day.
And suddenly, things shifted. The verdict was in: Love's hand was better, his knee was clean, and, most important, he's done for the season. No more questions, no more speculation, no more countdowns to when he might play. For some teams, it could have been a disappointment. For these Timberwolves, with five games remaining at the time of the surgery and no hope of the postseason, it was almost a relief.
On Saturday, Love no longer had to dwell on what wasn't or what might have been. On Saturday, he was talking future. He was talking offseason, next season, pointing out that he's only 24 years old. He was talking anger and disappointment with a few expletives and how they fuel him going forward.
Love isn't on crutches. He's abandoned his post-surgery cane. He'll be back to business as usual in four weeks, he said, with his hand now fully healed and his nagging knee issues fixed.
"I'll get to have a big offseason hopefully," Love said. "I go into every offseason thinking it'll be the biggest one of my life; this one's no different."
There was a certain element of catharsis to the forward's words, with no need to hide whatever latent pain he was feeling before, whatever worries he might have had about not being able to return. There's no more gray area, no more wondering. The questions can move forward, to next year, to when things will matter again, so to speak. They can dwell on the past a bit, too, now that it is actually the past and not some ambiguous state of waiting. Love can once again be the leader of a team, not its injured scapegoat.
In all of his games behind the Timberwolves' bench this season, Love has grown close with Brandon Roy, his comrade in injured arms. They've talked about their shared frustrations, Love said, and it seems as if the words have offered the younger player some consolation. It's different for Roy, Love said. He knows in his heart that he won't play again, at least not at a high level, whereas Love knows full well he'll be back. Love has learned the difference between resignation and fierce disappointment, and he's moved soundly toward the latter.
"I could say a few choice words (about having to watch from the bench this season)," Love said. "It's been very hard. No bull----, it's hard to sit back there and watch the guys you go to war with out there and sit there and have to watch. This was supposed to be such a big year for us and myself and everybody included in this organization, (and) it pisses me off in a lot of ways."
It's good to hear Love talk like that. For a player who's been working tirelessly to repair his somewhat tarnished (whether justly or unjustly) reputation, words like Saturday's go a long way. There's no polygraph to prove it, but this version of Kevin Love sounded committed to winning for this team, to leading it, to finding a way to keep coach Rick Adelman around along with the valuable pieces already in place.
Love said he doesn't feel any pain just three days after the Wednesday procedure, and he's making it sound like the June 1 date at which he might fully resume basketball activities that Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn mentioned on Monday might be a conservative estimate. He's talking like he could be back sooner, like perhaps the regrets, if not gone, are at least taking a backseat to the possibilities.
He could have had surgery the first time he broke his hand. He could have taken more time to recover in the fall. He could have watched his words, at times, or tempered expectations. But there's a sense that these could haves matter less to Love these days. There's a sense he knows what he did right and what he did wrong, and that June matters a lot more than anything that happened in October.
Love has a motto, he says: "Speak things into existence, put it out there, and people are going to have to hold you accountable." He didn't necessarily do that this year, he admits. There was obfuscation and controversy and perhaps a lack of self-awareness at times and Love knows it. He also knows he can fix it.
"I've always prided myself on being a pretty ambitious kid," Love said. "That's part of the reason I've been where I'm at today. You can always get better, you can always push forward."
Kahn has grown fond of calling this season Love's "lost season." However overly grandiose that phrasing might sound, it's true. This was supposed to be the year Love pushed his team to the next level. He achieved individual success last season, and this year he had the pieces around him to do more, to make his individual success matter. When a reporter implied on the first day of training camp in October that Love was ready to take over leadership of this Minnesota team, he bristled.
He was already the leader.
It seemed so simple then. It was Kevin Love's team, built around him and for him, and it looked like it might win. There was no thought of a broken hand or even of these latest knee problems. There never is.
This year, Love learned a bit about mortality the mortality of his body and the mortality of his image. It was messy, at times, and certainly unpleasant, but he's no fool. He's learned from this, if not what he should do, then at least what he should not.
"You never want to have a season like this," Love said. You never want to, and you never know it's an option until you do. You never know how to avoid it until it's hit you square in the gut.
This week, answers were given, a knee was sliced open, and the momentum moved forward. That's the best Kevin Love could have asked for.
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