If the Minnesota Timberwolves are going to make a playoff push, they'll need Kevin Love in the lineup.
With Love expected back after missing one game with flu-like symptoms, the visiting Timberwolves close out a back-to-back-to-back set on Thursday night when the well-rested Suns go for their ninth consecutive victory in this series.
Already with one more victory than last season, the Timberwolves (18-18) are just one game behind eighth-place Denver in the Western Conference standings. There is real optimism among this group that it can help the team make its first postseason appearance since 2003-04, yet the health of the Timberwolves' best player could determine if that happens.
After a memorable All-Star weekend in Orlando where he won the 3-point shootout and scored 17 points in the West's 152-149 victory over the East, Love has had a rough couple of days. He needed a padded shirt after taking a shot to the ribs in Tuesday's 109-97 victory over the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Clippers, and he missed Wednesday's 104-85 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
"You can't say it's (Love's) fault,'' rookie Derrick Williams said after Minnesota lost for just the second time in seven games. "It's our fault we didn't play to the level we're supposed to play at."
Love, who is averaging 24.5 points with 13.8 rebounds, had 23 points and 16 boards in a 128-122 loss in Phoenix on Dec. 15, 2010. However, he missed the last two matchups against the Suns in 2010-11 with a strained left groin.
Minnesota's top two road shooting performances of last season were in the desert, yet the team did little to slow down the Suns, who averaged 123.7 points and hit 52.5 percent from the field - including 38 for 79 from 3-point range - in their three wins.
Phoenix (14-20) hasn't dropped a game in this series since a 105-103 home loss on Jan. 16, 2009.
The Suns go for a fifth consecutive home win over Minnesota as they return from the All-Star break.
Playing nine of its next 11 at home would seem like it would be to Phoenix's advantage, but coach Alvin Gentry's team is just 7-9 at US Airways Center. Instead of a third consecutive victory heading into the break, the Suns allowed 39 first-quarter points and lost 106-104 to visiting Golden State on Feb. 22.
"I'm disgusted with the way we played and I'm disgusted with the fact that we got a chance to enter the break on something upbeat and positive and instead we just walk through the first 10 minutes of the game," Gentry said.
The Suns need to play with more urgency as they're in real danger of missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since a three-year drought from 1985-88.
If Phoenix doesn't improve its 13th-place spot in the standings, the trade talk involving Nash could intensify with the March 15 trade deadline looming.
"It's all rumor and conjecture," Nash said Sunday following his eighth career All-Star appearance. "If something happens, it happens."
Nash will get his first look at Ricky Rubio. The rookie point guard is shooting 4 for 23 over the last three games, but he has 24 assists during that stretch.
If Love can't go, Williams - last season's Pac-10 player of the year at Arizona - would likely make a second consecutive start.
- Steve Nash