MINNEAPOLIS — What was once merely ballyhooed is now somewhat battle-tested.
The Timberwolves closed a grueling mid-November stretch with a resilient 106-88 victory over Boston on Saturday, bouncing back from a disappointing road loss 24 hours earlier and cementing a sense of hardiness throughout the dressing room of a franchise that’s used to wilting, not answering.
It’s one thing to start off 7-4 for the first time in 12 years. It’s another to do it winning three out of five games in a seven-day stretch that included trips to California and Colorado.
“We’ve just been fighting,” Kevin Love said. “We were definitely tired today.”
Coach Rick Adelman knew he had a more talented group this year. Until the past week, he didn’t know as much about its grit.
As the seasoned coaching sage loves to reiterate, there’s still 7/8 of a regular season to play. Warring through one week, no matter how stringent, doesn’t vindicate anything.
But it does give a team ravaged by injuries last season evidence the tide in the battle for respectability may be turning.
“I think we realize what is at stake,” shooting guard Kevin Martin said. “In the past, this might not be a serious game for them, but tonight we realized we need to get over that hump of not staying around one or two games over .500.”
Nikola Pekovic played through a sprained left ankle and scored 20 points while missing one field goal and pulling down 12 rebounds. Kevin Love took an elbow to the eye and popped back up to finish with 23 points and 12 boards. Coming off a flu bug that kept him out earlier in the week, Martin didn’t shoot well but scored 20 anyway. Corey Brewer and Ricky Rubio combined for seven points, but J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham stepped off a scrutinized bench to pick up the slack.
And a bunch that had given up too many easy buckets in a loss at Denver on Friday tightened up and locked down a rebuilding adversary it was supposed to handle.
“If you’re a good team,” Love said, “you have to win games like this.”
It started with Pekovic.
The sure-handed big man looked more like the guy that earned a maximum-length contract extension this offseason than he had through Minnesota’s first 10 games. Much to the pleasure of 15,111 fans, his restricted-area baby hook and muscle-over-matter rebounding frustrated Boston’s young frontcourt all evening.
He went 8-for-9 from the floor and 4-of-5 on free throws, finally being granted a trip to the foul stripe after not getting a single call in the Timberwolves’ past two games.
Pekovic did it all on a sore ankle that didn’t seem to limit him — certainly not like the nagging injuries that kept him out of 20 games last year.
“It was a very tough night for us — five games in seven nights,” Pekovic said. “We needed to jump on them.”
“Every time we made a run,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “Pekovic stopped it.”
Pekovic and Martin scored 10 points apiece in the game-deciding third quarter. After seeing a 17-point lead trimmed to five at the break courtesy of Avery Bradley’s buzzer-beating 3, the Timberwolves outscored Boston 34-20 in the third frame.
Bradley led all scorers with 27 points, but the Celtics (4-7) shot 39.5 percent and lost their third straight.
In the second stanza, Jared Sullinger’s elbow caught Love in the left eye and sent him to his back. Love received an appreciated apology, he said, and wasn’t fazed in recording his 10th double-double this season.
“That elbow just went right into my eye,” Love said. “It just happened, but for me, I’m glad guys are human beings in this league and actually see and check if you’re OK. We’re out there competing, and some of us are (expletive)s, let’s be honest. At least they’ll say, ‘I hope everything’s OK.'”
Martin came in shooting 52 percent from 3-point range but went 1-for-7 on this night. His teammates were equally cold.
“It was just me coming back down to earth,” said Martin, who switched to more pull-up jumpers and floaters to notch his seventh straight 20-plus-point showing. “I’m not gonna shoot the way I’ve been shooting all year. We’re gonna go through stretches like that.”
Case in point: Brewer looked frenzied and just a little ahead of himself for a second straight night. Boston made a point to shadow him in transition — from which the majority of points have come this season — and didn’t allow him many looks at the basket.
Rubio wasn’t a scoring factor either, but did tally a status-quo seven assists.
Three of them came in the first quarter as Minnesota built a 33-24 lead. A Pekovic lay-in made it 43-26 with 7:47 left in the second, but the Celtics outscored the Timberwolves 24-12 the rest of the way before halftime.
Barea and Cunningham made sure they filled in the offensive gaps. Barea sliced and jump-shot his way to 13 points — nine in the first half — while Cunningham scored a season-high 12 for the second night in a row.
“We have to keep getting people chances, and guys have to be ready,” said Adelman, whose bench remains the lowest-scoring in the NBA. “We’re only 11 games into it. There’s 71 games to go, so guys have to stay with it. They have to stay in shape, and they’ve got to seize their opportunity that’s given to them.”
Said Cunningham: “We’re starting to catch a good rhythm.
“We’re just trying to be a good team — a great team, actually.”
Responding like they did Saturday will grow more and more difficult as the Timberwolves’ season chugs along. They’ll go through more clunkers like Friday’s 117-113 setback in the mountains.
But central to sustaining yearlong achievement, Martin said, is the ability to stop downward spirals before they begin.
“We seem more focused after a loss,” Martin said. “Hopefully, Tuesday, we can program it in our minds that we lost tonight.”
They’d better reconfigure quickly, because starting Tuesday in Washington, Minnesota gets to do it all over again. Another week. Another five games.