MINNEAPOLIS — Three times this week, Nikola Pekovic has been granted an unfamiliar yet welcome sight: Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, both in uniform and anticipating whichever direction Pekovic tries to direct the opening tip.
The on-floor reunion makes the 6-foot-11, 290-pound behemoth of a man emit a boyish grin.
“It’s just a great feeling to get back together,” Pekovic said after practice this week. “I know it’s been a while since we get together, all of us. It’s just good feeling.”
It’s everyone’s favorite stat this preseason, and one of the most telling regarding the Timberwolves’ injury woes of a year ago: their core trio of Pekovic, Love and Rubio was on the floor together a grand total of 13 minutes, spread across three regular-season contests. By Saturday evening at the Target Center, they’ll have eclipsed that game total in less than a week.
Coach Rick Adelman made a point, especially in Minnesota’s first two exhibitions, to keep the three of them on the floor together. In Monday’s loss to CSKA Moscow, they shared 24 minutes, 30 seconds of court time — the first 9 minutes of the first quarter, the final 7:30 of the second quarter, and the opening minutes of the second half before calling it a night.
Wednesday’s road trip to Toronto followed a similar progression that amounted to 16 minutes, 30 seconds for the point guard, power forward and big man expected to uphold this franchise for the next few years. They took a backseat Thursday as several youngsters auditioned for their niche on the roster in Sioux Falls, S.D., against Milwaukee.
Love and Rubio have been virtually inseparable in the lineup, while Adelman’s moved Pekovic around and allowed him to work, at times, alongside the Timberwolves’ second unit. Versus the Bucks, Pekovic played 23 minutes while Love and Rubio chalked up a shade less than 11.
There has been a relearning curve for the incumbent core.
“They still haven’t played together yet, not the way they’re capable of playing together,” Adelman said. “It’s just a process.”
In the win against the Bucks, Minnesota’s starters — minus Kevin Martin, who sat out with a sore Achilles tendon — gave up early leads of 10-0 and 15-4. CKSA jumped out to a 25-15 first-quarter lead earlier in the week.
Love has yet to truly find a shooting groove, though his All-Star track record indicates he should before too long. His best night came in Canada when he scored 20 points and pulled down nine rebounds, but he also missed 8 of 14 field-goal attempts. Pekovic is shooting 50 percent, and Rubio looks healthy and energized for what he hopes is his first full NBA season after tearing his ACL as a rookie.
But blending it all together takes time.
Love and Pekovic’s passing and finishing skills render them the primary ballhandlers behind Rubio in Adelman’s offense. It’s a scheme that allows players to create on their own, whether it’s setting a pick for a teammate, rolling off one on their own or knifing through an opening to create a passing lane.
Remembering Love’s particular tendencies, for example, can be tough for Pekovic when the former played in just 18 games last year.
“Just knowing what’s our position and what we need to do in offense and defense,” Pekovic said. “That’s something that’s just gonna come through games.”
Defensively, communication has rung out as a central theme since training camp opened last Tuesday. Pekovic, in particular, struggles with it at times.
Minnesota’s centers often hang out below the rim while the rest of their teammates match up on the perimeter. It’s on the big guys to let them know what’s transpiring outside their line of sight.
Ronny Turiaf, a well-known chatterbox, does a superb job of it. Pekovic, not as much.
“We both talk a lot off the court, so we damn well better be able to talk on the court,” Love said of Pekovic. “We’ll make him more vocal. That’s something that Ricky and I talked about before our first practice, that we need to get him talking.”
To some degree, Adelman has to trust it will all come with time. Right now, he’s just as focused on filling out the lower end of the roster.
“We’ve got to get them together,” the coach said of Pekovic, Love and Rubio. “At the same time, we’ve got to find out about players, see who’s gonna play and what the rotation’s gonna be.”
That was Adelman’s main objective at Sioux Falls’ retro-style Pentagon. Alexey Shved started in place of Martin, Othyus Jeffers played more than 25 minutes and scored 13 points, and rookies Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Deing saw substantial action.
So did Robbie Hummel and A.J. Price, who along with Jeffers and Lorenzo Brown are vying for a spot on the 15-man roster. Guaranteed-contract center Chris Johnson has yet to play.
That fact and the strictly-precautionary absence of Martin — there’s a good chance he sits again Saturday against the Raptors — have opened up opportunities for the rest of the lot.
But there’s still a premium on getting Rubio, Love and Pekovic on the same page.
“It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming,” Pekovic said. “It just have to come through all these preseason games, then I hope at the beginning of the season we gonna be fine.”
Minnesota has Toronto at home Saturday night, a week of practice, then three more tune-ups to make it happen.
“We have to know each other better,” Rubio said, “and a game is the way to do it.”