DENVER — Shortly before the Timberwolves wrapped up a five-game road trip Monday at Denver, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic appeared back in their element.
The Pepsi Center locker room was nearly twice the size of their home digs in Minneapolis. The air they breathed was noticeably thinner, given Denver’s mile-high altitude.
But as Martin bounced up and down on an exercise ball and Pekovic had both his ankles — the right one especially — taped up heavily by a team trainer, the pair of once-maligned Minnesota starters looked right at home.
"I feel a little pain," said Pekovic, who returned from right-ankle bursitis to notch 20 points and nine rebounds in the Timberwolves’ victory Saturday at Sacramento. "But it’s no big deal to me. I don’t care."
Said Martin, who also came back from injury Saturday and had 26 points against his former team: "I’ve got my legs under me. I got off my feet for a week, and then I just got back to being the skinny guy I am that can run forever."
Due to a broken left thumb, Martin shared a fixed position on Minnesota’s bench with Pekovic for seven games. While the slender two-guard waited for his hand to heal and the beefy center worked with head athletic trainer Gregg Farnam to restore his ankle to playing capacity, the two tried to keep each other’s spirits up while their teammates attempted to maintain the club’s faint playoff hopes.
"I think guys that are on the sideline together not playing, they have their own little bond, because you know they want to be out there," Martin said. "On the court, you just try to keep on pushing guys through the lows and just getting through the tough times."
It could’ve been tougher. In the seven games both Martin and Pekovic missed, the Timberwolves went 4-3; two of those victories came on the road swing that concluded Monday against the Nuggets.
That eased the pain of a swollen Achilles tendon and nearly a month away from the court for Pekovic.
"When you see the guys are still winning some games and playing good, playing really hard, it give you some good feeling that still we can do something," Pekovic said.
Pekovic played nearly 28 minutes in Saturday’s 108-97 win — a few more than the low-20s restriction previously handed on by Farnam. He said there’s still some pain during games, but as long as there’s no lingering soreness the day after, he’s "good to go every night."
In order to make sure that remains the case, Farnam instructed Adelman to play Pekovic no more than five or six minutes at a time for now.
"I just have to figure out a better way to do it to make sure he’s available at the end of the game," Adelman said. "(Players) are always telling you they’re fine, then they’re telling the medical staff that they’re not. It’s just one of those things that you have to deal with."
Unlike Pekovic, Martin was able to condition with the team while wearing a wrap on his non-shooting thumb. He took some time off immediately after hurting the thumb and during the All-Star break but wasn’t concerned about his wind when he returned.
It was a welcome sign for the 31-year-old, 10th-year pro.
"It definitely is different being hurt when you’re 25 taking three weeks off than when you’re 31," grinned Martin, who isn’t on a minutes limit.
Concern for Adelman family: Martin has played under Adelman in five different seasons with three separate teams.
So when he hears about the coach’s wife experiencing health complications, it can hit hard.
"To me, that’s family," said Martin, who played for Adelman in Sacramento and Houston. "Any time something like that happens, you worry about them. You feel bad for what they’re going through."
Adelman, 67, revealed Saturday he missed a game Feb. 10 against Houston after his wife Mary Kay took what he called a "hard fall." Doctors believed the incident to be related to the seizure disorder from which she suffers.
The coach spent three days last week — all off days in the midst of the road trip — to return to Minneapolis and be with his wife while doctors adjust her medication. Last January, he stepped away to tend to her and was absent for 11 contests.
There’s empathy all around the locker room, Martin said, but the best form of support is for him and his teammates to remain focused on basketball.
"We know what’s going on, and we’re trying to be there to support," Martin said. "We just know that he just wants us to go out and just keep on winning games. That’s how we pay him back."
The month of Love: Monday night’s game marked the Timberwolves’ second in a month of March that will see them sent to either the postseason or the NBA draft lottery.
If their star player does anything like he did in February, the former will remain a real possibility.
"I think he’s had just a great month — one of the best months I can remember anybody having," Adelman said of All-Star forward Kevin Love. "But now it’s a new month, so we have to build off what we did in February."
Love became the first NBA player since Moses Malone in March 1982 to average 34 or more points and 14 rebounds per game in a month. His 14.1 boards per game led the league, and his scoring mark is a franchise record.
Three times, Love posted 30-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and five or more assists, including his first career triple-double Feb. 22 at Utah.
"He’s very motivated," Adelman said, "and I think he’s known all along that with Pek out, we need him to play at a high level to have a shot to win."