MINNEAPOLIS -- The game was almost an afterthought, and the size of the Timberwolves' loss was anyone's educated guess. What the fans came to see Tuesday night at Target Center, the real show, were the youngest of NBA superstars, the next generation of talent that makes any ticket worth its price.
Derrick Rose and Kevin Love were what mattered, the reason to watch a 111-100 Minnesota loss to the Chicago Bulls. Each is the face of his team, a young leader, but in the years since they were drafted just minutes apart in 2008, the two players have followed divergent paths.
Picked first, Rose went to his hometown team, rich in basketball tradition but coming off a series of mediocre years. Chosen fifth, Love landed in Minnesota, with less tradition and more mediocrity in its recent past. Both 23-year-olds have delivered on the early promise their teams recognized in them, but Rose has helped to transform the Bulls back into competitors. Love, for all his spectacular numbers and the respect he commands from opponents, hasn't seen that turnaround yet.
The difference so far may lie in the other four players on the court. Rose has learned to rely on his teammates -- more this year than ever -- while Love has at times been a one-man show. In fact, Rose's numbers are down so far this season. He's averaging 19.7 points per game, compared to 25 last year, but for the Bulls that's a good thing.
"We needed him to score last year," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of his league MVP point guard. "Derrick's grown quite a bit. He'll do whatever's necessary for us to win, so some nights he has to do more scoring than others."
A more mature Rose is double-teamed nightly, and he's learned to rely on his teammates in those situations, which Thibodeau calls easy offense. When Love, an All-Star power forward, is double-teamed, he doesn't have the safety net of Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng alongside him.
The Timberwolves have grown accustomed to Love's numbers. Twenty-five points in a night is nothing out of the ordinary. His excellence is a foregone conclusion. But even after watching Love fill the box score night after night after night -- or perhaps because they've learned to recognize something special -- Love's teammates are in awe of Rose. He's the fastest player Ricky Rubio has ever played against, maybe even the best all around. He's one of the best players in the world in Derrick Williams' eyes, a complete threat who can basically do anything.
"He's very, very quick, and he's very explosive," Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said of Rose. "He can get to the basket. He creates a lot of opportunities for his teammates."
The Chicago point guard had the edge over Love on Tuesday, scoring 31 points to Love's 20 and turning to threes when the Timberwolves tried to contain him inside.
Only Rose could make a 20-point night look mundane.
That's not to say Love didn't impress, though. He was silent in the first quarter, and 13 of his points came in the second quarter, when the Timberwolves powered their way back into an unreachable game. Sinking threes and making his team look like a legitimate competitor, Love stole the spotlight from Rose for part of the game.
Thibodeau, who said it takes a whole team to stop Love, was far from surprised.
"You can see his confidence," Thibodeau said. "He's an all-around player. He's getting to the line nine times a game. He's obviously much more comfortable with his three. Now he's taking five threes a game, shooting over 40 percent."
It's true, Love is confident. He believes in himself, but more important, there's a confidence in his team that's creeping into his periphery. Of course he's tired of these closer-than-they-should-be losses, these moral victories on a 3-7 team. But he must have noticed that the 9-2 Bulls are bigger than just Rose. He must recognize that his team, too, is improving, with rookies providing the potential to be his Boozer, his Deng, his weapons against the double team.
It's an uncertain, hopeful kind of confidence, but it's there.
Rose and the Bulls are contenders. Love and the Timberwolves are not, at least not yet. But there's always the hope that in a few seasons, with time and growth, the two stars might not be in such different places as they are today.
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