Nikola Pekovic settling into new role for Wolves

MINNEAPOLIS — With 7:50 left in the second quarter Saturday
against Boston, Nikola Pekovic suddenly became outmanned.

Timberwolves guard J.J. Barea missed a short, fall-away
jumper, and Pekovic had two Celtics to usurp for an offensive rebound. So he
used his 6-foot-11, 285-pound frame to clear out Jeff Green and stuck out a
massive right arm to corral the ball away from Brandon Bass, then rolled in an
easy two after neither defender felt like getting in his way.

This was the Nikola Pekovic that signed a maximum-length
five-year, $60 million contract extension this summer.

“He ate offensive rebounds,” coach Rick Adelman
said after his team’s 106-88 win. “They had a hard time guarding him.

“It was nice to see him come out and play like
that.”

Especially given the recent circumstances.

Pekovic’s fourth NBA season since coming over from
Montenegro didn’t begin as planned.
Through Minnesota’s first five games, he shot a frustrating 38.9 percent from
the field and averaged 11 points and 9.6 boards.

The team’s leading scorer a year ago — by default, given
Kevin Love’s hand injuries and the Timberwolves’ lack of an outside scoring
threat — often looked rushed. Layups and hooks that used to go in with ease
clanged off the front of the rim. Easy rebounds and pass receptions glanced off
his hands and out of bounds.

Then Pekovic settled down.

He began a gradual rounding into form during wins against
Dallas (14 points, six rebounds) and the Lakers (14, 10). In Pekovic’s last
four games, though, he’s displayed vibrant shades of the big man he was a year
ago — 73.8 percent on field-goal attempts, 17.3 points per game and 35 rebounds.

Call it a welcoming back to the ups and downs of a lengthy
NBA season.

“Sometimes, you score,” said Pekovic, who in the
last four outings improved his shooting percentage from 40.3 to 52.1.
“Sometimes, you don’t score.”

That’s especially true with Love back in the fold and Kevin
Martin new to it. Early in the year, Pekovic said he was still adjusting to
their presence.

It means fewer touches and more opportunities to facilitate
rather than self-create. But it also opens up the floor for Pekovic to do what
he does best: bang people around in the paint and finish at the rim.

“I know I’ve still got the same role, but the two
Kevins, we know they’re going to take majority of the shots,” Pekovic
said. “I’m just trying to find myself inside and try to be open, try to be
in a good position whenever I can, try to go for offensive rebounds.”

He had a season-high eight — one off his career best —
Saturday and added 20 points for his fifth double-double of the year, missing
just one of nine field-goal tries.

The guy Love calls a “bull” even got to shoot a
few free throws and finished 4-for-5 from the foul stripe. He hadn’t been to
the line since last Monday’s game against the Clippers.

“It’s a good feeling just to win the games,”
Pekovic said, “but sometimes when you get a few times at the free-throw
line, you just kind of loosen up your game. You feel it.”

But perhaps the most promising sign for Pekovic is that he
overcame a sprained left ankle in his most efficient outing so far this season.
Nagging lower-body injuries kept him out of 20 games a year ago.

Pekovic’s sharpness and toughness will be further tested
during the next week when the Clippers and Nets travel to the Twin Cities
before the Timberwolves face Houston and Indiana on the road.

But he appears much more ready for that type of gauntlet
than he did seven days ago.

“He’s a load down there, especially when our outside
shots aren’t falling,” Martin said. “We have a guy we can rely on
down there.”

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