His banged-up Minnesota Timberwolves never needing him more, Love made a surprise return to the starting lineup on Wednesday against Denver, nearly two weeks ahead of the rehabilitation schedule set for his broken right hand.
The All-Star and Olympic gold medallist 's injury was announced on Oct. 18, two weeks before the team opened its most promising season in years. The team initially set a return of six to eight weeks. But Love was able to avoid surgery, and he quietly worked to get back at just under five weeks.
Coach Rick Adelman deftly dodged a question about Love in his pregame media availability, hoping to keep a lid on the surprise as long as possible. But a few minutes later, the news got out.
When he was introduced before the game, a stunned Target Center crowd erupted as they welcomed him to the 2012 season.
"You feel great when you have your best player back," Andrei Kirilenko said. "It's always needed. I'm still worried about him a little bit because it's a pretty hard injury. I'm sure he knows what he's doing. He's a smart player."
And the Wolves need their leading scorer and rebounder right about now. They started the season 5-2 despite missing Love and Ricky Rubio (left knee), then lost JJ Barea (left foot), Brandon Roy (right knee), Chase Budinger (left knee) and Nikola Pekovic (left ankle) to injuries that robbed them of six of their top seven players. But that spirited start gave way to some reality last week when the Wolves lost back-to-back home games against Charlotte and Golden State.
Pekovic and Barea joined Love back in the lineup on Wednesday night against the Nuggets, giving the undermanned Wolves a sense that three weeks' worth of slogging along without their star players was coming to an end.
"I was feeling Pek and JJ was going to take way shorter time to recover because they have, like, those little bangs," Kirilenko said. "But with Kev's broken (hand) that's pretty soon. I like it."
Love was wearing a black wrap around his right hand for a little protection, and he jumped right back into the action as if he'd never left. He grabbed three rebounds and scored six points in the first four minutes of the game.
It likely will take him some time to get his legs back after such a long layoff, but just having him back in uniform is expected to give the team a serious lift.
"I just hope it's going to stay like this," Pekovic said. "It's taken a long time to get to this."
Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://twitter.com/APKrawczynskiSuggest a correction