MINNEAPOLIS — Wednesday night’s 111-108 loss to Sacramento was an anomaly.
Not for the Timberwolves; Rick Adelman’s club has dropped far too many close decisions and an alarmingly high amount of home contests. But for their muscle-endowed, mega-sized center, this looked far from ordinary.
Nikola Pekovic, forced several feet outside the paint. Nikola Pekovic, missing frequently at the rim. Nikola Pekovic, not asserting his will as he has so often in his fourth NBA season.
It took 6-foot-11, 270-pound Kings center DeMarcus Cousins and a flat home effort to knock Pek into the closest thing he’s had to an off game since mid-November — 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting and eight rebounds.
But while Cousins bested Pekovic in this particular battle, Minnesota’s mountainous Montenegrin is making a case as one of the NBA’s elite active big men.
A bull — another metaphor Love likes to use for him — in the paint, Pekovic ranks atop the NBA in second-chance points, second in offensive rebounds and third among centers in points scored. He’s shooting over 50 percent for the fourth straight season. In his past 12 outings before Wednesday, he averaged 22.9 points per game (second among NBA centers during that span) and shot 55.3 percent from the field. His 74.1-percent free-throw clip isn’t anything to sneeze at.
And to think the 6-foot-11, 285-pound specimen from Bijelo Polje in what used to be Yugoslavia doesn’t think he’s even been all that great.
"I think I’m still not playing at that high level," said Pekovic, who’s averaging 18.2 points and 9.1 rebounds.
The last several games say otherwise.
Unless your name is DeMarcus Cousins, the lane is a dangerous place to be when Pekovic has the ball. The soft-handed finishing finesse he displayed during a breakout 2012-13 campaign has only become more refined, but he remains strong and aggressive enough to get close to the rim and make such shots easier.
And when a shot goes up, steer clear. Pekovic’s only thought is tracking down the rebound, as Sacramento’s bench learned Wednesday when he chased after a long miss and barreled straight toward the Kings reserves.
Alertly, they scattered.
He’s the strongest player in the league. In my opinion, it’s not even close.
Kevin Love on Nikola Pekovic
"He’s very tough to handle in this league," Love said before Wednesday’s game. "We were just talking about it today, he’s the strongest player in the league. In my opinion, it’s not even close."
It’s a marked difference from four years ago, when a raw and unconfident rookie version of Pekovic entered the league in time for the 2010-11 season. He’d been drafted in 2008 but spent two more years in Europe to hone his game.
That didn’t keep him from getting in almost immediate foul trouble upon entering games and making Adelman wonder if he’d ever develop into a viable NBA talent. Adelman coached the Rockets then and watched as Houston center Chuck Hayes manhandled Pekovic in the post when the two teams met.
"Pek did nothing against him," Adelman said. "That’s the only time I saw him play and I thought, ‘Well, he’s so raw,’ you know? I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got here, but then you started to see him get more comfortable and more comfortable and he’s really expanded his game and I think there’s a lot of room for him to keep expanding it, too."
Several sizeable strides came last season, when Pekovic started 62 games, shot 52 percent and notched 16.3 points and 8.8 boards a game. His efforts helped him earn a lucrative five-year, $60 million contract as a restricted free agent this past offseason.
The deal is thought to contain incentives for games played; in each of his first three full NBA seasons, nagging injuries kept Pekovic out of at least 17 games.
Durability hasn’t been an issue this year, either. The bumps and bruises have come, but improved flexibility and increased attention from the Timberwolves’ straining staff have allowed him to start all 38 games and average a career-high 33.4 minutes per game.
After taying away from heavy basketball activity during the summer while his contract situation played out, Pekovic got off to a slow start this season. He was shooting 40.3 percent through his first seven games.
"It’s coming," Pekovic would tell reporters inquiring about his 2012-13 form.
It has, enough to the point where the word "All-Star" has begun floating around the Target Center.
Despite Pekovic’s usual dominance, it looks like a long shot. Before last season, the NBA eliminated centers from its fan ballot and instead allows them to vote for three "frontcourt" players — small forwards, power forwards and centers — and two backcourt players.
There’s too much star power outside the five spot in the Western Conference at the moment. The latest batch of ballot returns, released last Thursday, showed Cousins in 11th among frontcourt men and Pekovic left outside of the top 15.
Adelman also doesn’t anticipate Pekovic being voted in by Western Conferences coaches as a reserve, either. Minnesota’s 18-20 mark and Pekovic’s short track record don’t help his cause, the coach said.
"You have to face the facts, too, that we’re right around .500 and there are teams that have had great runs and so that type of thing," Adelman said. "I think that takes care of itself, once you have a couple years. Usually coaches want to see it for a couple years before they actually vote for them. I’m not sure if that’s right or if that’s wrong."
But with All-Star fan balloting closing Monday ahead of the Feb. 16 game, Adelman’s boss said Pekovic deserves a serious look.
"There’s no question right now that if they had not changed the rules on the All-Star Game that he would be an All-Star," president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said. "So our job now is to push, because I think he’s deserving of being an All-Star. He’s one of the top big guys in the league. I think people want to see guys like that in All-Star competitions."