MINNEAPOLIS — The Timberwolves’ muddled three-man picture became a little clearer in their season-opening victory over the Magic on Wednesday.
Free-agent acquisition Corey Brewer got the nod at small forward and immediately endeared himself to the 17,988 fans in attendance, some of whom probably recall a combustible, loose-cannon youngster who spent the first 3 1/2 years of his career here. Leaking out in transition and benefiting from nifty passes courtesy of Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, Brewer scored 16 points and tallied three steals at the other end of the floor.
Coach Rick Adelman had considered bringing him off the bench. That’s what George Karl did in Denver the past two seasons, and it helped Brewer put together what he calls the best stretch of his NBA tenure.
But with Chase Budinger out indefinitely after meniscus surgery, Adelman went with what he deemed the safest bet.
“He was terrific,” Adelman said of Brewer. “That’s why in the long run, you’re thinking about bringing him off the bench, but we need to establish something now.”
Dante Cunningham served well as Brewer’s primary backup, scoring 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting in 20 minutes, 12 seconds of play. With Orlando boasting a three-guard lineup most of the second half, Adelman matched up with a rotation that heavily featured J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved alongside starting guards Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin.
Derrick Williams, a four by trade who’s expected to play both forward positions this year, didn’t see the floor.
“(The Magic) made the solution who was coming off the bench real easy, because they had three guards out there,” Adelman said. “I couldn’t even figure that out.”
Both before and after the game, though, Adelman said he’ll continue to evaluate the three position. If Williams, Cunningham or someone else is a better fit on a given night, he’ll start.
It was a happy homecoming for Brewer, whom a downtrodden Timberwolves squad traded to Dallas in February of 2011.
“It’s a different feel,” Brewer said. “Last time I was here, we were rebuilding and we were losing. I feel like this team’s gonna be a winner.”
Late heroics: Love’s game-tying, left-wing 3 with 10.1 seconds left Wednesday wasn’t an on-the-fly Adelman concoction. Minnesota ran it several times in practice Tuesday.
The only difference was Love’s long, arching shot rattled out then.
“I’d rather make it in a game than in practice,” Love said.
A double-screen set on the left elbow by Brewer and Nikola Pekovic allowed Love to cut straight in front of Rubio. The point guard’s inbound pass allowed Love to square up and sink the third game-tying or go-ahead trey of his career within the final 10 seconds of a contest.
Magic coach Jacque Vaughn opted not to foul with his team up by three late, and Minnesota survived a scare in its first outing with Love, Rubio and Pekovic back fully healthy together for the first time, really, since 2011-12.
“We’d been working on different things when we need a 3, and the two guys that were next to him did a great job of squeezing, and he was able to come through and get a wide-open look, Adelman said.”He shoots that thing long-distance about as good as anybody. When he can square up like that, there’s a really good chance he’s gonna make it.”
The two Nikolas: Pekovic wasn’t the only giant Montenegrin named Nikola on the floor Wednesday night. National team companion and friend Nikola Vucevic started for the Magic after catching up with Minnesota’s center earlier in the day.
Pekovic stopped by Orlando’s team hotel following morning shootaround to see what his fellow big man’s been up to. The two grew close while playing for Montenegro in international tournaments the past couple offseasons — though Pekovic sat out of EuroBasket 2013 this past summer while his unrestricted free agency played out.
Pekovic, 27, was one of the first NBA players to come out of the Eastern European country. Vucevic, 23, is one of several proteges up to him — even though he’s got an inch on 6-foot-11 Pekovic.
“He’s probably one of the best players to come out of Montenegro,” Vucevic said. “A lot of young people look up to him. Everybody knows who he is. There’s a lot of young guys that really like him and watch him play. He’s got a big fan base over there.”
While Pekovic’s team earned the win Wednesday, Vucevic got the better of his countryman in the low post. The third-year pro notched 22 points and 16 rebounds — one less than Love — even though he barely received a break, playing 45 minutes, 40 seconds.
Pekovic, meanwhile, struggled to find his shooting touch and tallied 11 points and seven boards.
Vucevic contested several of Pekovic’s misses.
“We are really good friends, and I’m really happy for him,” said Pekovic, who re-signed with the Timberwolves for five years and $60 million. “He’s a great player. I hope he’ll get what he deserves in the next year.”
Maybe just not when Minnesota travels to Orlando on April 5.