Jim Mone/Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS – The Target Center crowd stood and watched in disbelief as Kevin Love was introduced in the starting lineup, at least a week ahead of schedule from a broken right hand that had kept him out for the first nine games of the season.
The only problem was his Minnesota Timberwolves teammates spent the rest of the night standing and watching Love as well.
Andre Iguodala had 18 points and nine rebounds to spoil Love’s surprise season debut in the Denver Nuggets’ 101-94 victory Wednesday night.
Love had 34 points and 14 rebounds, helping the Wolves take a 17-point lead in the first half.
But he didn’t get a whole lot of help in his first game in nearly five weeks.
Nikola Pekovic had 10 points and seven rebounds, and J.J. Barea was the only other Wolves player in double figures with 12 points.
“You’ve got to be able to go to other players rather than just him,” coach Rick Adelman said.
Danilo Gallinari scored 19 points for the Nuggets, who withstood a furious start by a Timberwolves team buoyed by the return of their All-Star power forward.
Ty Lawson had 18 points and nine assists, and Kenneth Faried had 14 rebounds for the Nuggets, who overcame 20 turnovers.
After a sluggish start to the season, the Nuggets (6-6) have picked up two consecutive quality road wins against Memphis and Minnesota.
“Kevin Love’s an All-Star player, but it’s a 48-minute game and thank God we hung around,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “The balance at both ends of the court was probably the best we’ve played all year.”
Love broke his right hand Oct. 18, about two weeks before the start of the regular season, and the team estimated a recovery time of six to eight weeks. But he quietly rejoined the team at practice during a four-day break between games, and the Wolves did their best to keep a lid on his return for as long as possible.
Adelman even dodged a question about Love’s progress about 75 minutes before the game, but word leaked out a few minutes later that Love was back in the starting lineup.
“I didn’t want to make a big deal about it,” Love said. “I told my teammates, and they didn’t really believe me. Once they saw a jersey in my locker, they believed it was true.”
During his halftime interview with FoxSports North, Love said he called his father on Wednesday to tell him he was playing, then asked if he had any advice.
“Let it fly,” Stan Love told his son.
Did he ever.
Love scored 16 points on 7-for-12 shooting in the first quarter, an incredibly fluid performance considering his long layoff. Barea and Pekovic returned from injuries as well, and the Wolves led by 17 points in the first half, but Iguodala, Love’s Olympic teammate, helped Denver come roaring back in the third quarter.
Still, Love said he didn’t feel like his normal self over nearly 35 minutes. He missed six free throws and was just 2 for 9 from 3-point range and was constantly flexing his hand to work out some of the residual pain.
“I haven’t even practiced, so I just kind of threw myself into the game hoping something good was going to happen,” Love said. “I missed some free throws, missed some 3s that I don’t usually miss. A lot of those could have saved us the game.”
Iguodala hit three 3-pointers and then unleashed a spin move in transition and a dunk over two Timberwolves to tie the game at 67.
Lawson added another from long range, and Faried threw down a dunk that gave the Nuggets a 92-87 lead with 2:41 to play, and Denver was able to hold on.
Andre Miller scored all 11 of his points in the fourth quarter for Denver.
“I saw him shooting before the game, and I didn’t think he was playing, but they said he was playing before the game,” Iguodala said. “The whole thing is the NBA is about adjustments anyway. ... That’s good that our team was able to adjust to his presence. He started off great, and then we had to adjust and try to slow him down a little bit in the second half.”