MINNEAPOLIS — That was certainly not one for the ages.
That was 47:42 worth of mediocre basketball, all but sliver of a game in which the Timberwolves looked absent on defense and just fine on offense, when it seemed that re-integrating Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko into the lineup after nearly three weeks out was going to be a days-long project.
That was 47:42 worth of rust from the Timberwolves’ big man and small forward, moments when one reminds oneself it’s a good thing that they’re back, despite the missed free throws, despite the poor rebounding, despite a certain immeasurable sluggishness.
And then there were those 18 seconds. Eighteen seconds when Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams got some help, when rust ceased to matter, when innate skills and adrenaline trumped not practicing for nearly three weeks.
First act, Pekovic. With his team down, 95-94, he muscled in an offensive rebound and drew a foul. After making just one of four free throws on the night, he sunk not one, but two, giving the Timberwolves a one-point lead.
Second act, Kirilenko. The small forward was on the bench for Pekovic’s brute acrobatics — Rick Adelman was at least attempting to adhere to a minutes limit for the small forward — and he then subbed in for the big man with 15 seconds left in the game. The Hornets had the ball, and Eric Gordon drove to the basket for a layup, which Kirilenko summarily swatted down. He grabbed the rebound, was fouled, made a free throw, and that was that, a win, 97-95.
A close game and a win. That combination has been a novelty in Minnesota of late; the Timberwolves haven’t won a game by a margin of fewer than five points since Dec. 29. Lately, with just nine healthy players, any kind of late-game stamina or aggressiveness has been nothing short of impossible, but with Kirilenko and Pekovic back, the team was able to sustain something. Sure, the two are rusty, but they had enough left to make the plays that mattered.
“It’s only 14 seconds,” Kirilenko said. “You can survive those 14 seconds when you really concentrate on that one possession. I’m more worried about like stretch, more than five minutes. . . . You know me, I’m an energetic player. I’m supposed to run. That’s how I’m effective. If I’m slow, it doesn’t do me any good.”
“I was saving it (for the final) 14 seconds.”
Kirilenko said he isn’t feeling any pain in his calf, but that he’s still just a few steps behind. That’s natural, especially because neither he nor Pekovic was able to get in a full practice before returning, and it’ll likely continue. Both say they’ll be fine to play in Memphis on Monday, but it may be more of the same: a gradual easing back to form.
There’s no right way to integrate injured players, not on a team as shorthanded as this one that’s attempting to at least tread water as the season ends. To hold them out until they could practice would have meant an even more extended time on the bench, and likely a loss Sunday, but to put them in was to risk rushing things. To start them, like Adelman did, was to throw them into the fire, but to keep them on the bench would be to risk them getting stiff and pulling a muscle when they eventually enter. It’s a bit of trial and error, what Adelman is doing, but as the coach said before the game, these are two of his best players, and really, there’s no reason not to start them and see what they can do.
That’s what the rest of this season will be, a bit of experimentation, a bit of show and tell. What can this team do? What could this team have done? Williams scored a career-high 28 points on Sunday. Can he do better? Can Rubio log another triple-double? What about Chase Budinger when he returns, and maybe even Kevin Love? Sunday night, however sloppy, however lackadaisical at times, gave at least a glimpse.
“People don’t realize, I don’t think the season is over,” Rubio said. “We have to build something here for the future, and we want to do something else. I know it’s been tough for this team this year, but we just have to get though what happened and play hard every night and build something for next season.”
Sunday night, getting two more players healthy, two more bodies, two more options, is the first step in doing so. Nobody said it was going to be pretty.