MINNEAPOLIS — It’s bizarre to see a 6-foot-11, 285-pound human being that looks like he could lift a basketball hoop appear helpless. But as the Timberwolves’ playoff hopes took another significant hit Wednesday at the Target Center, Nikola Pekovic could only sit and stare in subdued frustration.
The minutes limit associated with Pekovic’s right-ankle bursitis prohibited him maintaining much of a rhythm after he kickstarted Minnesota’s inches-short, third-quarter comeback attempt. Coach Rick Adelman played him the first 6 minutes, 55 seconds of the third quarter and didn’t reinsert him until the fourth period began.
Pekovic was on the floor for most of a game-deciding 15-2 run that allowed the Knicks to secure a 118-106 victory and snap a seven-game losing skid. But had he been able to remain in during the previous stanza, things might have turned out different, Pekovic claimed afterward.
"In the third, I really felt good," said Pekovic, who played his third game after missing 13 straight. "I just get it going, so Coach didn’t want to sub me out. I didn’t want to go out. But it’s a fact I’ve just got to follow the rules now if I want to heal up all the way."
Pekovic went 5-for-6 from the floor in the third quarter, scoring 11 of his 17 points and helping Minnesota (30-30) keep pace with a Knicks team that wound up shooting 52.2 percent from the field. But Adelman was forced to take him out in order to save him for the final frame.
Head athletic trainer Gregg Farnam has Pekovic on a 20-minute restriction until further notice. By the time he exited in the third, the Montenegrin big man had already played 21.
"It’s just really frustrating, because you’re trying to win games. You’re trying to stay relevant and everything," said an exasperated Adelman, whose team still hasn’t won more than three games in a row this season. "He had it going. That third quarter, we had it going with him on the floor, and I had to take him out. It’s just something that we have to live with, and it’s really hard. You get no rhythm."
Even so, the Timberwolves managed to climb within two points of tying via a 16-6 run in the third, bringing to life a home crowd of 14,294 that hadn’t seen them here in two weeks. But their first eight field-goal attempts of the fourth quarter were all off the mark, precipitating defeat on a night when gained ground in the conference standings sat ripe for plucking.
Talent-heavy New York (22-40) had lost 13 of its past 15 to cement itself as one of the NBA’s most disappointing franchises this season. The two teams between Minnesota and the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot — Memphis and Dallas — both lost Wednesday.
But the edge during a 4-1 road trip was nowhere to be found, as a slow start and a slower finish dropped the Timberwolves back to .500.
"I guess now, we play better on the road," Love scoffed.
Without Pekovic around to bear some of the interior punishment, Love was held to just one point in the second half and 19 total — his lowest scoring output since Jan. 21 at Utah. Minnesota went 7-for-26 from beyond the arc and had no answer for Carmelo Anthony, who scored 33 points on 14-for-27 shooting with three 3-pointers.
Some sustained production from Pekovic certainly might have helped neutralize Anthony, the league’s second-leading scorer.
Adelman has virtually ignored Farnam’s 20-minutes-per-night recommendation. Pekovic’s first game back, he played for nearly 28 minutes. Monday in Denver, he was on the court for 24.
"I want to be in there, but still, I’ve got to listen to Gregg," Pekovic said Monday in Denver. "Whatever he says, I just know he want me good. He want me to be able to play now through the end of the season, so at this point, I’ve really got to listen to him."
Adelman has mostly honored Farnam’s request to play Pekovic in spurts of no more than 5-6 minutes. For that reason, he took him out in the midst of a staunch individual hot streak Wednesday.
The minutes cap likely won’t be lifted until Pekovic experiences less pain in his right ankle. He said Monday he’s allowed to play as long as there’s no soreness the day after Minnesota’s previous game.
But with 22 games remaining, the Timberwolves need maximized production from all of their key contributors.
"Another thing (we have to fight through)," point guard Ricky Rubio said of Pekovic’s pared-down availability. "It’s something that the medical staff, we can’t fight against them. We knew it, and that’s it."