By Jon Krawczynski
AP Basketball Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Surprise, Kevin Love. You’re an All-Star starter.
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ forward was voted a Western Conference starter Thursday night, leap-frogging Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard in the final balloting to earn the first starting nod of his career.
“I think it’s a little sweeter this way because I really didn’t expect it,” Love said on a conference call. “I was already humbled by the response the fans gave me to being very close to the top (frontcourt players). The outreach by the Minnesota fans and beyond was truly amazing.”
Earlier in the day after practice in San Francisco, where the Wolves are preparing for a game Friday night against Golden State, Love sounded resigned to not getting voted in when he spoke to reporters. In the final voting tabulations made public last week, Love trailed Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin by 17,000 votes for the third and final frontcourt spot.
Love was eating lunch in his hotel room when Timberwolves President Flip Saunders and GM Milt Newton came to his room and gave him the news.
“I was in disbelief up until it came across the screen that I was going to be a starter,” Love said.
The Wolves’ public relations staff made a massive push to get out the vote, urging fans to use social media to stuff the box. It’s a bit of vindication for small-market Minnesota to be successful in pushing its star into the game when he was competing against the likes of Griffin and Howard in much bigger cities with much bigger fan bases. Love received 661,246 votes.
“It means a lot. It doesn’t go unnoticed,” Love said. “The fans have been so great this year not only to me, but to the rest of the team. Everybody’s had my back and had the team’s back so much. It really means a lot.”
It’s also a testament to Love’s superb season. Despite playing on a team that hasn’t quite met expectations this year while hovering around .500 for most of the season, Love has reasserted himself as one of the very best power forwards in the game. He is fourth in the league in scoring at 25.0 points per game, second in rebounds (13.0) and is averaging a career-high 4.1 assists. He has also made big strides on the defensive end as he tries to lead the Timberwolves to their first playoff appearance since 2004.
“I am very happy for Kevin,” Saunders said in a statement. “He is certainly deserving of being voted in as a starter. You look at his numbers, his commitment to making his teammates better and his overall value to our team this year, he’s certainly having an All-Star caliber season. He’s been a joy to watch this year and I look forward to watching him represent the Timberwolves in New Orleans.”
He becomes the Timberwolves’ first starter since Kevin Garnett in 2007, which was also Garnett’s final season in Minnesota.
Love has been trying to fill Garnett’s shoes for six years now. He doesn’t have KG’s force-of-nature presence on defense or his Big Bad Wolf scowl. What he does have is a game that is quickly making him the next generation’s Dirk Nowitzki.
The league has seen more and more “Stretch 4s” — power forwards that can step out and shoot from the perimeter — over the last five or six years. Nowitzki set that mold with the Mavericks, a 7-footer with the size to get to the glass and the soft touch to draw an opposing big man out of his comfort zone.
Love has taken it a step further, shooting 3-pointers at an even higher clip while remaining one of the very best rebounders in the league. Griffin and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant join him in the West frontcourt.
“He’s been one of the best players in the NBA all season and I’m glad his hard work is paying off,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said.