LONDON – On a day the basketball world rocked and reeled, a day when the Los Angeles Lakers became the latest superstar aggregator and the United States and Spain set up a gold medal rematch, Kevin Love played his role.
As a career-long Timberwolf, he regarded news of Dwight Howard’s trade to the Lakers as one of those odd stories that happens half a world away, like a nuclear meltdown in Siberia, an event that is of interest but doesn’t affect him.
As a Olympic bench player, he logged sparing minutes, only 15 in Friday’s 109-83 semifinal victory over Argentina, while his rock-star teammates bombed three-pointers and dunked to entertain themselves, the entire U.S. bench emptying after one showy Carmelo Anthony three-pointer, causing U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski to try to shush a bunch of millionaires like a harried dad quieting kids on a plane.
The basketball world was putting on a fireworks display, and Love was playing Scrabble, and that suits him.
After playing sparingly in exhibition games, Love has become a key if overlooked player on the U.S. squad, an ideal fit for a team filled with long-range shooters and aggressive slashers. Love works the glass, hits open shots, scraps for loose balls. Sunday, when he plays in the gold medal game against Spain and the Spanish Armada front line of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, the U.S. will need Love more than it could have ever expected.
“I think I’ve definitely worked my way into significant minutes,” Love said. “I think I’ll play a large amount against them. Because we’ll definitely have to play our size against them.”
On a team with only one experienced center, the elite defender Tyson Chandler, Love has become a sometimes- center, sometimes-forward who is versatile enough to find a role with whatever group he joins on the court.
Friday, while his teammates were launching rainbows and whipping Argentina, Love quietly approached a double-double. He finished with nine points and nine rebounds in those 15 minutes, blocking a shot and making four of his seven attempts from the field. He was as efficient and taken for granted as a drive-through window, and he finished the game on the bench, with LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, who are suddenly his peers.
So why, I asked him, isn’t he ever on the receiving end of those end-of-game alley-oops? Why doesn’t the garbage man get to show off in garbage time?
“You know what? It’s like pick-up ball,” he said. “I never get the ball in pick-up games or in garbage time. It’s just one of those things.
“I’m just out there. If I get the rebounds, so be it. But when it’s meaningful minutes, I’ll get shots.”
That’s why Love fits so well on this USA team, fits better than anyone might have imagined. Only a couple of weeks ago, the word in the knowledgeable basketball media was that Love wasn’t fitting in during exhibitions, that he could lose minutes to raw young center Anthony Davis.
“I was never worried,” Love said. “It’s definitely an honor to be part of this team, to play for Coach K, to be a part of his team. I’ve been a part of their grass-roots program for a while.
“I felt comfortable the whole time. I just needed an opportunity. Coach K and I talked about it the whole time, and Coach K told me he would give me one, and eventually I got it.”
Now he’s one game from gold. On Sunday, the U.S. won’t run a single play for him, won’t clear out and let him go 1-on-1. It’s just assumed Love will be there for the weak-side offensive rebound, and the blockout, and the tip.
“It’s kind of been like that my whole career,” he said. “You’ve seen it. You don’t need to run a play for me to be effective. I think it’s a large part of the reason I’m on the team.”
He could be on quite a few.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • [email protected]