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Updated: December 19th, 2012 8:05pm
Wessel: No better place for Kevin Love to step up than on national TV

Wessel: No better place for Kevin Love to step up than on national TV

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Thursday's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder provides an intriguing test for the Minnesota Timberwolves in a season that has essentially been dubbed as playoffs or bust.

They welcome the NBA's best team to Target Center for the franchise's first game broadcast nationally on the TNT network since the 2004-05 season.

It's just one of 15 games the Wolves will play in front of a national audience this season -- the latest sign the franchise is relevant once again after being dormant for the better part of the last decade.

Labeling anything "must-win" this early in any season is foolish, and that won't be done here. But if the Wolves are going to continually to be taken seriously as a franchise that has reinvented itself, these are the games in which they need to put in a respectable performance, especially now that Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love are both healthy.

Yes, the Thunder are clearly the better team. But if the Wolves are to make the playoffs it will almost certainly be at a No. 6, 7 or 8 seed. That puts them in a first round match-up against the likes of the Thunder, Spurs or Clippers.

Remember, just making the playoffs would be nice, but it isn't the end game. The end game is becoming one of the upper echelon teams in the Western Conference and keeping Rubio and Love around for years to come.

Simply making the playoffs and getting swept into summer vacation won't convince either to do so. And if the Wolves are going to start being competitive with the league's best, it starts and ends with Love and Rubio -- the former especially.

It is no secret since Love returned (probably too soon) from that broken hand he has struggled to find much of any kind of rhythm. He is shooting 29% (19-of-65) in the past four games and has left plenty to be desired on the defensive end.

This makes those comments he made to Yahoo! Sports last week look even worse.

There is no question Love is an elite player. He showed that last year and this summer with the USA Olympic team. 

But if he is the maximum contract player he claims to be -- if he is the franchise player a team can build around -- then he needs to start showing it on the court.

A team being led to the playoffs by efforts of seemingly one player isn't unheard of. It happened in this town with the last franchise power forward.

Love said last week that this is the best collection of talent he has had around him during his time here. The team is, for this season's standards, healthy.

Brandon Roy (what did you really expect out of him?) and Chase Budinger (a key reserve) are still out, but Rubio has returned and the team is about as full strength as an NBA team can hope to be 20+ games into the season.

The talk heading into the season was how good the Wolves would be once Love and Rubio were healthy. Well, now they are.

Growing pains are inevitable for any team on the cusp, but so are steps forward and signs of progress.

Again, it is only one game, but Love and the Wolves have a great opportunity to take a big step forward with the whole league watching.