The Minnesota Timberwolves are bouncing back.
After a disappointing and injury-riddled 31-win season last year, the Wolves were supposed to be competitive this season. They were supposed to be the playoff contenders that they never developed into last year. But so far, through four games, they've been slightly better than that.
The 3-1 Timberwolves finally have their identity back.
Ricky Rubio is running all over the place. Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic are grabbing every rebound. Kevin Martin is draining seemingly every three that he attempts.
So far, it's all gone right in Minnesota. On that note, here are five positive signs we've seen from the Wolves over the first week of the NBA season:
In 2013, it feels like you need a great center to be a great defensive team. There needs to be someone on any given roster who can protect the rim at all times.
Great defensive teams need length and rim protection. Ultimately, help defense rules over all and there isn't a more essential help defender on the floor than a big man who can both blow up the pick-and-roll and deter perimeter players from coming into the paint.
The Wolves don't have someone like that. Kevin Love isn't going to do that. Neither is Nikola Pekovic.
That's why the Wolves' hot defensive start has been so interesting. To a degree, it's been unique.
Minnesota is winning defensively on the perimeter.
The newly-signed Corey Brewer has been active. Ricky Rubio has been his usual ball of feistiness. Alexey Shved, though he has struggled on the other end, has been competent on the defensive side. So have J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham, who has gotten better as a help defender at power forward.
Pek and Love may not be the best rim protectors, but that's just fine for now considering the Wolves' perimeter defenders aren't letting opposing offensive players get to the rim all too much.
Through four games, Pek has blocked only one shot, but he's actually done a pretty decent job at defending the paint. According to the NBA's new player tracking data, Pekovic is contesting only 4.8 field goal attempts per game at the rim, but opposing players are shooting only 36.8 percent on those shots.
To put that in perspective, that ranks Pekovic the sixth-best rim protector among all NBA bigs who are averaging more than 25 minutes a night.
Pek won't become a defensive enforcer. He won't be one of the six best rim-protecting starting centers in the league, but he could continue to get better and with quality perimeter players around him and Love's improved help defense, the Wolves have a shot to be better than the middle-of-the-pack defensive team they were last year.
Kevin Love is back. Is there anything left to say?
Apparently the answer to that question is yes, because there's a lot more where "Kevin Love is back" came from.
Love is averaging 26.5 points and 14.3 rebounds in the first four games of the year. His style is so modern, but his lines in the box scores look like they're straight out of the early 1960s.
31 points and 17 rebounds against the Orlando Magic.
24 points and 12 rebounds against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
34 points and 15 rebounds against the New York Knicks.
Stop, Kevin. You're hurting me.
Really, those numbers should be more illegal than Nikola Pekovic's "clean" screen on Love's game-tying, fourth-quarter three against Orlando on opening night. But really, that's just Kevin Love.
Love is capable of putting up numbers like no one else. We're talking about a guy who once averaged almost 31 points and almost 14 rebounds a game over an entire month—and he did all that while shooting 44.9 percent from three on almost seven attempts per game.
That doesn't happen. That never happens. Nobody does that—except for Kevin Love.
Love played only 18 games last year, but what if this is the season he puts it all together? He's averaged 20 and 15 before. He's averaged 26 and 13. What if this is the year he starts putting up historic numbers?
For some reason, we cap Love. We think of him as a "he is what he is" guy, a great player, but someone whose ceiling doesn't match that of a guy like Blake Griffin.
That might be a small market thing. It might be a (code-word alert) limited-natural-ability thing. Who knows?
Love is only 25 years old. He just turned 25. It's silly to assume he's done getting better, especially defensively, where he has loads of room for improvement.
What if the Wolves win 50 games this year while Love averages 27 and 14? Wouldn't he have to be in the conversation for MVP, even though LeBron James still exists? Isn't he a "voter fatigue" candidate along with Chris Paul and Kevin Durant?
Love has a chance to grab the credit he deserves and if the Wolves keep playing like they have to start the season, he's going to have some hardware to throw up on the mantle at the end of the year.
The Cleveland Cavaliers outscored the Timberwolves 31-23 in the first quarter of Monday night's game, the Wolves' first loss of the season.
It was the second night of a road back-to-back and Minnesota looked notably tired and out of sync.
The Wolves didn't move well. Their defensive effort was questionable. It just wasn't the best performance.
That's how you get outscored in the first quarter for the first time all season: lack of energy. Usually, though, Minnesota has been the Duracell bunny during first quarters.
The Wolves dropped 38 on Orlando in the first quarter on opening night. They followed that up with a 34-point first quarter against Oklahoma City. Then came the biggest first quarter of all, a 40-19 thumping of the Knicks in the first period of Sunday's game.
In their first three games (all wins), Minnesota outscored its opponents 112-65 during first quarters. That's 112 points in three quarters worth of basketball. It's video game-like.
Maybe Rick Adelman is the most inspiring pregame speaker of all time. Maybe he nailed the motivational speech formula. Maybe he spent a whole summer with Terence Mann and can now will people to do whatever he wants with his deep voice and enigmatic persona.
Or maybe it's just four games.
Regardless of why it's happening, it's hard for a team to win a game when it's down double digits just 12 minutes in. Constantly fighting back is exhausting. It's how teams break down during games.
Minnesota has 135 points in the first quarter through four games. That's 33.75 points per first quarter. Clearly, that number won't keep up, but if the Wolves can continue to be one of the best starting teams in the league, their running style can become even more dominant when losing teams get anxious and start trying to make plays that are out of their comfort zones.
It was a legitimate question coming into the season: Could Kevin Martin maintain the same efficiency numbers he posted last year playing in Oklahoma City.
Down south, he had Kevin Durant. He had Russell Westbrook. The defense wasn't going to concentrate on him on the perimeter, because if they did, Durant or Westbrook would burn them every time.
The Wolves have weapons, but not perimeter high flyers like K.D. and Russ. It's a different style, a different system, and ultimately, it was logical to question if Martin could be quite as efficient in Minnesota as he was last season.
Well, four games into the season, Martin is making it look horribly illogical.
Minnesota still isn't a three-point shooting team. The Wolves are hitting only 31 percent of their threes, but in reality, that percentage is only as high as it is because of Martin, who is 12-for-20 from long range over his first four games in Minnesota and who has made five threes in back-to-back games for the first time since November of last year.
It's been interesting to watch Martin, a left-side dominant player, work well with Love, also a left-side dominant player. It doesn't always work out when your two best three-point shooters excel most from the same spot on the floor (in Love's and Martin's cases, that's the area above the break on the left side of the court).
So far (even though Love has shot a less-than-desirable 28.6 percent from three, it's worked quite well. Still, it's only been four games.
Of course, we'll need to see more before we know for sure that Martin can maintain this sort of level of play, but he's been a quality scorer at every one of his NBA stops. His stay in Minnesota likely won't be any different.
Nope, Russell Westbrook wasn't there, but the second game of the Timberwolves' season wasn't something to ignore.
The Wolves got off to a hot start against the Thunder, leading 34-19 at the end of the first quarter and never looking back en route to a 100-81 win. It's those hot starts. They're happening all the time.
No one on Oklahoma City could really score. Jeremy Lamb had some moves off the dribble—and that was it. Done. Nothing. The Wolves gave up nothing.
Remember it all comes back to the defense with this team. The Wolves love to get out on the break, which makes perfect sense when you have Ricky Rubio as your point guard and Kevin Love feeding him outlet passes, and you're not going to be able to run without getting stops.
Against the Thunder, the Wolves got stops.
Without Westbrook there to help him, Kevin Durant shot only 2-for-7 in the paint. Again, it's that unexpected rim protection. The team defense is good enough that the entire team is defending the paint—instead of one individual—and it's working.
A couple of nights later, the Wolves headed to New York and beat down a talented Knicks team that has struggled so far, but is bound to turn its season around sooner rather than later.
Minnesota is beating playoff teams. It's beating teams that won well over 50 games last year and it's doing it convincingly. We can't ignore that.
The Wolves are legit. It's time we acknowledge it.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36 minutes numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.