Injuries open door for Cunningham, but Dieng continues to wait

Dante Cunningham is getting more of an opportunity -- and making the most of it -- after an injury to Nikola Pekovic.

Tom Szczerbowski/Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

MINNEAPOLIS — Familiar sensations from last season are not a desirable trait around the Target Center.

Unless your name’s Dante Cunningham.

While the Timberwolves forward would never outwardly wish anything but full health toward his teammates, Cunningham’s opportunities here are largely presented when a comrade can’t go. During last year’s injury-riddled season, he was one of only six players to appear in 74 or more games.

Up until early last week, 2013-14 was a different story — both for Minnesota and Cunningham. A busy offseason that brought a deeper rotation and improved health across the board shoved the fifth-year pro further down in the pecking order.

That is, until starting center Nikola Pekovic was ruled out indefinitely with right-ankle bursitis after exiting last Monday’s game against Chicago.

When that happened, another door opened for Dante. So far, he’s plowed through it.

"It definitely helps going into a game knowing there are some extra minutes out there," Cunningham said, "and knowing that the team needs a couple players to step up and continue to play well."

In five games since Pekovic’s injury, Cunningham is scoring 10.6 points per game, pulling down 6.6 rebounds per game and shooting 61 percent from the floor. That last mark ranks 11th in the NBA during that span.

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His minutes have increased from 17.9 per contest to 26, a workload much more reminiscent of 2012-13. That’s because there’s more space for him in the rotation, either spelling starting power forward Kevin Love or playing the four when Love slides over to center.

Before Pekovic went down, Cunningham was playing 17.9 minutes per game. His shot was off — 43.3 percent for a guy who’s taken 25 3-pointers in his NBA life — and he expressed visible displeasure with sitting on the bench more often, most notably at the end of a loss to the Suns when Kevin Love blamed him and J.J. Barea for sulking at the end of the bench.

"It is tough to kind of go in and kind of get a couple minutes and come out then kind of sit and wait a little bit," Cunningham said this week. "I’m in a completely different role than last year."

But with a few more chances to establish a rhythm, Cunningham’s upped his game in the wake of Pekovic’s absence. He was especially needed Wednesday, when Kevin Love (stiff neck and back) and Corey Brewer (birth of his son) were both out of the lineup at Oklahoma City.

The Timberwolves fell by nine at Chesapeake Energy Arena but hung with the West’s best squad until the game’s waning moments. Cunningham started at power forward and had a season-high 18 points and five rebounds in 42 minutes, 35 seconds, the second-most he’s ever played in a professional game.

"He’s been playing well," coach Rick Adelman said. "I think he’s been more active. He’s shot the ball pretty well. We need to get him going with Pek out."

How long Pekovic won’t be available remains in question. Adelman says he’s not aware of any timetable for the big man’s return, though the walking boot he had on his right foot was removed Monday.

Brewer is expected back for Friday’s game at New Orleans. Love will have had a day off to rest his aching body by then, too.

But until the swelling around Pekovic’s right Achilles tendon goes down, his absence will continue to have a trickle-down effect. While it’s proven a positive for Cunningham, rookie center Gorgui Dieng has yet to reap such benefits.

Still adjusting to the NBA game, Dieng is the only healthy five-man on the roster behind replacement starter Ronny Turiaf. But Adelman has preferred to go with a smaller lineup whenever possible.

That’s fine, Dieng said.

"I can’t anticipate anything," said the 6-foot-11 Senegal native, who a national championship with Louisville last year. "If I get in tonight, I will play. If not, there’s nothing I need to worry about. I’m just looking at the big picture right now. I’m working on my game and staying ready. I’m very patient."

When Dieng has seen the floor — 8.75 minutes per game since Pek’s injury — he’s continued to struggle. He has just four points and 15 rebounds during Pekovic’s pain-enforced hiatus.

Tuesday against the Lakers, Dieng took an elbow to the jaw and missed the rest of the game. Wednesday, he was charged with goaltending on a long 3-pointer that gave the Thunder a 3-point lead and all kinds of momentum entering the final period.

Dieng has displayed the rim-defending ability Minnesota liked when it made him the 2013 NBA Draft’s No. 21 overall pick. But he’s not nearly as effective in the paint on the other end of the floor, converting just 41.18 percent of shots inside the lane and within eight feet of the basket.

Foul trouble has been an issue, too. In less than eight minutes Wednesday, Dieng picked up three infractions.

"He competes," Adelman said. "That’s one thing about him. Sometimes, he’s out of position, especially offensively. He’s not ready to catch the ball, and he’s not ready to finish. It’s just gonna take time."

Turiaf, meanwhile, has mostly fulfilled expectations — protect the basket, clear out the lane, talk on defense. In 25.4 minutes per game, about 11 more than his previous season average, he’s scoring 3.5 points and yanking down 4.9 boards an outing.

Turiaf is expected to make his sixth start in a row Friday.

There’s no single method for making up for Pekovic’s 18 points and league-leading paint and second-chance prowess, his coach and teammates have said.

So it’s incumbent upon Cunningham, Dieng, Turiaf and the rest of the Timberwolves’ healthy contingent to plug the gap via committee.

"Right now is just a time for everyone to pick up the slack," Cunningham said. "Everyone just has to step up and continue to do a little bit more and help the team be successful."

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