In the fourth quarter of an early-season blowout of the Boston Celtics, Kevin Love snatched the rebound of an errant shot from Jeff Green. Even before his feet had firmly landed, Love whirled and fired a pass with the two-handed, trebuchet-like launch that has earned him and his most frequent target, Corey Brewer, highlight appearances on "SportsCenter."
But Brewer wasn’t on the other end of this pass. J.J. Barea was trucking up the court and the pass sailed over his left shoulder. It bounced and kicked out of bounds before Barea could get a hand on it. With self-serious grimness, Love turned to the Minnesota bench.
“You can’t let that s--- bounce! It’ll skip [away from you],” he said, flashing a smile.
More than any other play in basketball -- more than the pick-and-roll, maybe even more than the alley-oop -- the outlet pass requires two players in a matched set to sculpt it into art. Yes: Love has thrown outlets to Kevin Martin, to Alexey Shved. But the jelly to Love’s peanut butter is Corey Brewer.
The veteran swingman is a master of the leak out. At the moment defense turns to offense, Brewer transforms from stopper to opportunist. In Denver, fast breaks consisted of multiple passes. In Minnesota, they’re single-strike, court-length bombs thanks to his unique alchemy with Love.
The outlet has been likened to a quarterback hitting a wide receiver, and Brewer finds that comparison apt.
“I played receiver -- it’s basically the same,” he said. “If I’m running a route, when I come out of my break or my cut, the ball is there. Kevin’s throwing it to a spot, so you’re actually running to the spot. So when I look at him and I know he’s going to throw it, I just try to run. If I can get in front of the last defender, I just know it’s going to drop right there. If it’s just a regular point guard, go for it. It’s like a smaller defensive back on Calvin Johnson.”
That was part of the problem with that pass to Barea. “I’m like 6-9 and J.J.’s like 5-3 so it’s tough for him to see where he’s going to catch it,” Brewer said. (Barea is listed as 6-foot on the NBA’s official website.)
If Brewer’s part in the play stems from a mix of height, speed and instincts first honed on the football field, Love’s part is based no less than on a set of unique skills and attributes first developed in his youth.
“I played with my brother three grades up when I first started organized basketball and I couldn’t quite get the ball 10 feet, so I actually had to shoot like that,” Love told the Timberwolves’ website, referring to his two-handed fling. “And I shot at a very high rate -- made a lot of shots -- that’s kind of how the accuracy developed.”
That long-distance passing accuracy, combined with Love’s clinical understanding of rebounding, has won him comparisons to Wes Unseld at least as far back as this brief profile from Sports Illustrated, when Love was a senior at Lake Oswego High. And in this short documentary on Unseld, Rick Barry says in regard to Unseld: “He wasn’t exceptionally quick, he wasn’t a great leaper, he didn’t have great size, and got as much out of what he had talent-wise as any player who’s ever played the game” -- all things that could be and have been said about Love.
Not yet convinced? Love's middle name is "Wesley," named for his father Stan’s former Washington Bullets teammate.
As teams have grown wise to the strategy, the Wolves have pulled back on it, but it can still be an effective way to throw the other team out of rhythm.
“You go away from it,” Brewer said, tying it back to football. “Just like you go away from the deep ball and then all of a sudden you hit them with [it].”
Love concurs: “You kind of have to know the time and place in the game: If the other team has gone on a run or maybe you’re down, or maybe you’re making a run of your own. It can affect the game in a lot of negative and a lot of positive ways. You just have to be a smart player and I pride myself on having a high basketball IQ, but at the same time you have to have some sort of imagination to throw that pass.”
It’s a gamble that doesn’t always pay off, but the outlet -- like a dunk or an alley-oop -- has the power to galvanize a team, and to sow doubt in an opponent.
“When we get an outlet pass, everybody gets excited,” Brewer said. “It’s an easy bucket, so your team gets fired up. And the other team, they get down. They’re like, ‘How did you let that happen?’ Coach starts getting on them, now they have to worry about it. We’re all amped.”
As a pet play, it’s a perfect option for a Timberwolves team that doesn’t rely on athleticism, but on cutting, ball movement, execution and pushing the ball on the break to get open looks. Their own defense is going to produce steals with Ricky Rubio and Brewer, but lacks rim protection. So instead, a successful defensive sequence means they stymie and frustrate the other team with good rotations and communication, in the process forcing a bad shot and opening up rebound opportunities for Love and Nikola Pekovic.
At least, that’s what it looks like when it’s clicking. It’s a state the Timberwolves have at times struggled to maintain, and after a dispiriting loss to Denver on Nov. 27 that dropped them under .500 for the first time all season, Brewer said, “We’ve got to get some kind of swag or energy.”
Hovering around .500 now and coming off an emphatic win over the 22-5 Portland Trail Blazers, it’s clear the team knows what it's capable of. The question is how to sustain it, how to build a self-propelling swag generator out of the pieces they have.
This is maybe why the connection between Love and Brewer is getting attention now, rather than back when Brewer was with the Wolves during Love’s first three years in the league. (Love’s second-ever assist in the NBA is described on NBA.com’s stats page as an “overhand pass ahead to Corey Brewer for the two-handed slam.”)
The outlet pass is an expression of what the Timberwolves were envisioning when they drafted Rubio in 2009, brought in coach Rick Adelman in 2011 and signed Martin and Brewer this past offseason. It’s a concentrated burst of the type of flash-and-grind team the Timberwolves are working to become, built on opportunism, movement and smoothly interlocking parts.
Although Love is one of the best players in the game, he’s not the kind of dynamic, all-in-one talent that Kevin Durant or LeBron James is. Whatever this Timberwolves team is going to accomplish rests on him, but he can’t do it alone. He needs the support and intuitive understanding of teammates like Brewer, and their often risky, sometimes transformational outlet passes are where it comes together.
"During the game,” Brewer said, “we kinda look at each other and he’s like, 'We're about to get one right now.' And I'm like, 'I got you.' "