If the Minnesota Timberwolves are going to chase down their first playoff berth since 2004, they're going to have to do most of the work without Kevin Love.
Unfortunately for this hard-luck franchise, they know what it feels like to play without their All-Star and Olympian.
Love will miss the next eight to 10 weeks after needing surgery to repair a right hand that is broken for the second time this season, the team announced on Wednesday.
It's the latest in a long line of injuries to Minnesota's key players that have threatened to derail a season which started with post-season aspirations. It's also the latest chapter in what has been a nightmare season for Love in the first year of the $62 million US contract extension he signed last January.
Love missed the first three weeks of the regular season after breaking his right hand in the preseason. He returned faster than most expected, played for about a month and then broke two bones in his shooting hand in a game last week against Denver. The team said a date for the surgery would be announced Thursday.
"We're going to miss him a lot, but there's nothing we can do about that right now," point guard Ricky Rubio said Tuesday night before knowing the full extent of Love's injury. "We just have to keep moving forward."
Could return to lineup mid-March
The timeframe would put Love back on the court possibly around mid-March, about a month before the playoffs begin. The Wolves (16-15) started the day in ninth place in the Western Conference, one spot out of the playoff field.
Love was averaging 18.3 points and 14.0 rebounds after helping Team USA to the gold medal in the London Olympics, but he hasn't been the same player who emerged as the best power forward in the game last year.
Needing more time to rest after the Olympic grind, Love showed up to training camp knowing he would need to push himself to get into the shape he was accustomed to playing in. That process was halted late in the preseason when he injured his hand the first time, a break that didn't need surgery and allowed him to return about 10 days earlier than expected.
Once he was back in the lineup, Love struggled to recapture the shooting form that made him such a unique problem for opposing defences. He was shooting just 21.7 per cent from 3-point range and 35 per cent from the field, with his hand not allowing him to get the feel on his shot.
"I think this time, he needs to do it right, to recover fully, recover all the way to the end," centre Nikola Pekovic said before the team played Oklahoma City on Wednesday night. "The last time, the previous time he got hurt, he kind of hurried. So maybe, I'm not a doctor, I don't know. Maybe that's the reason: it's not healed all the way. I'm sure this time he'll heal it up all the way."
Love also drew scorn from a Timberwolves fan base that had adored him shortly after returning when he made some critical remarks about the organization to Yahoo! Sports and renewed his complaints about getting a four-year contract and not the five-year deal that he wanted.
Now the Wolves will have to play on without him again.
Team has struggled with injuries
They've also lost Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger and Josh Howard to knee injuries this season and been slowed by Rubio's gradual return from a torn ACL in his left knee last March. Rubio returned for five games in mid-December, but had to sit out four games with back spasms, as well, and said after dishing out eight assists in a win over the Hawks on Tuesday night that he's still working to get his conditioning back up to speed.
Nikola Pekovic, J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour have also been dealing with minor injuries, a run of health issues that has left coach Rick Adelman without a full bench for almost the entire season.
Even Adelman has been absent lately, missing the last two games for personal reasons. It's not immediately clear when the coach will rejoin his team.
"The NBA doesn't stop for us," said assistant Terry Porter, who is filling in for Adelman. "I wish I could make it stop and just twist the schedules a little bit. I don't want to stop seeing somebody but I just want to re-shift when we see them. Like OKC, we want to see them in March maybe."