BOSTON — Seldom does a player with such a dominant-looking stat line sound so disgusted with his play.
“You know, like they say,” Kevin Love muttered. “[Expletive] happens.”
The [expletive] Love was referring to was his team’s 101-97 loss the Celtics on Monday in a game in which he piled up 27 points and 14 rebounds. Yet despite his box score-stuffing performance, Love was never able to take control of the game and had to fight for each point and rebound.
Often, he lost that fight.
It wasn’t just that the Celtics won the game or that Love shot an underwhelming 9-for-26 from the field. Within the flow of the game, Love never seemed to find the right feel. When the Celtics played fast, he was a beat too slow. When the Celtics became more deliberate, he made rushed, bad decisions. Meanwhile, Nikola Pekovic, Corey Brewer and the rest of Love’s supporting cast had their moments to make the Celtics work for the win, but Minnesota’s role players never got more than a few individual spurts that the Celtics were able to endure.
“We just tried to make it difficult,” Jared Sullinger said. “We understand that we’re small and we had to play as a group [Monday]. With Kevin Love playing inside-outside, got big Pek in there, and Corey Brewer likes to leak out and back-cut at times, so we were just protecting the rim and playing hard.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens began with his usual strategy of throwing Brandon Bass at the opponent’s top post player, and it was no different against Love. But Bass, usually a sure defender, picked up his fifth foul less than three minutes into the third quarter and had to watch most of the second half unfold from the bench. In Bass’ place, Kris Humphries stepped in to harass Love, while Vitor Faverani teamed up with Sullinger to help contain Pekovic.
The Celtics chased Love everywhere, inside and outside, wherever the All-Star does his damage. Love, normally a 39 percent 3-point shooter, missed nine of his 11 attempts from beyond the arc. It didn’t get any easier in the post, where the Wolves only outscored the undersized Celtics by a slim 40-38 margin. By the end, Love and the Wolves were kicking themselves, and Kelly Olynyk was calling Sullinger “phenomenal.”
Stevens, while shaking his head at Love’s emerging greatness, admired the job his group did on a guy the Celtics coach had dubbed a “top-five” player right before tip-off.
“Obviously, Kevin Love’s in that elite group of guys that you really respect from the outside looking in, and when you get in the middle of it, you respect [him] even more because he can do so many things,” Stevens said. “The best part about [Monday] was that our primary defender on him wasn’t playing much of the night with foul trouble, and I thought Humphries did a phenomenal job off the bench for us, on both ends of the floor, but certainly in guarding and defending Kevin Love. He did it about as well as you could.”
Before the game, Stevens spoke about Sullinger possibly studying Love in the coming offseason, not just in his shooting, passing and rebounding but in his efforts to get into decathlon-quality physical shape. Sullinger indeed put up a line reminiscent of a young Love with 24 points and 11 rebounds. The place Sullinger was most Love-like, however, was in the locker room.
While Love was irked over missed opportunities, Sullinger was downplaying his own performance as a simple result of playing hard. Perhaps this is why Love has made the leaps he has the last few years, and why so many people close to the Celtics say Sullinger can make the same sort of leaps in the coming years. Neither player seems all that impressed with the eye-popping things he’s done. Each just wants to fix the things he didn’t do well — what few things those are.