MINNEAPOLIS — Nikola Pekovic exited the Timberwolves’ locker room at halftime looking as nonchalant as if he was walking across the street to Starbuck’s. The behemoth of a center bumped fists with a toddler in front of Hubert’s restaurant then slapped five with a few middle schoolers on his way out of the tunnel.
His team, on paper, was shorthanded Wednesday night. No Kevin Martin. No Kevin Love double-double.
Yet reaching out to those wide-eyed youngsters during his short midgame sojourn may have been the toughest task Pekovic faced all night.
In a flurry of can’t-miss shooting and stingy defense, Minnesota trounced an opponent in ways rarely seen at the Target Center during its 23 years of existence. The Timberwolves effortlessly broke the century mark and walled off any hope Cleveland had of vanquishing its cross-conference foe for the second time in nine days.
And that was with 2:47 left in the third quarter.
“Terrific,” coach Rick Adelman called it.
“Awesome,” was the descriptor Kevin Love used repeatedly.
Minnesota’s 124-95 whipping-post session included a 70-point first half — the eighth of its kind in franchise history — and had the Timberwolves on pace to break the club record for shooting percentage until its reserves played out the entire fourth quarter. By then, their lead had swelled to 108-76 thanks to an incinerating start by Corey Brewer, 33 points from Love, a career-high assist total for one of the game’s premier playmakers, Ricky Rubio, and a lack of a defensive lull against a team that edged them 93-92 on Nov. 4.
The NBA’s second-best team on the break coming in, Minnesota (6-3) outscored Cleveland 29-6 in transition much to the delight of 14,978 fans in attendance. The Timberwolves held a 49-37 edge in rebounds and a 56-32 advantage in points in the paint. Their starting lineup shot 64.2 percent and outscored the entire Cavaliers’ roster.
In short, a massacre.
“They were talking about it on the bench,” Adelman said. “‘We don’t stop playing.'”
Starting at shooting guard in place of Martin — who wasn’t with the team due to illness — Brewer commenced the shellacking, scoring his squad’s first nine points en route to 27 points, which is two off the seventh-year pro’s career high and tied for his best in a Timberwolves uniform. He more than filled the 3-point shooting void left by Martin, who’s shooting 58.8 percent from 3 this season.
Brewer nailed all five of his long-distance tries, including one that sparked a 35-15 run spanning the first two quarters.
Rubio had to check the back of Brewer’s jersey, he said, to make sure this was in fact the defensive-minded swingman with a 29.6 career 3-point percentage.
“He was making shots, and he was being Corey, too,” said Rubio, who added a season-high 16 points and three steals. “He’s been great for us.”
“When you lose a guy,” Brewer said, “you have to step up.”
Even before news of Martin’s illness came out, Adelman planned to have Brewer defend whichever shooting guard Cleveland trotted out. In Adelman’s offense, the two-guard and small forward fulfill virtually interchangeable roles.
Martin’s absence, then, allowed rookie Robbie Hummel to make his first career start. The Purdue-bred training camp survivor stepped in and scored 10 points in 28 minutes, 12 seconds of action.
He found out he’d get the nod less than 40 minutes before the game’s 7 p.m. tip.
“My heart instantly started beating a lot faster,” Hummel said. “I feel like I’ve been trying to stay ready. We’d been talking about that. The coaches had been harping on the guys, ‘Your opportunity’s gonna come. It’s a long season.’ I just tried to do that, and luckily tonight, I feel like I played pretty well.”
But with Love drawing attention in the post and Rubio making plays at an all-time high, Hummel and Brewer had plenty of room to operate. Love went 10-for-16 from the floor and 12-for-14 from the foul stripe and added eight rebounds.
But this night, in many respects, belonged to Rubio.
The third-year Spaniard dished out 16 assists, two more than his previous best. Of Minnesota’s 45 made field goals, 34 came courtesy of a helper.
“We’ve been talking all year about trying to get it up the court and flow into something,” Adelman said. “Don’t stop. Today, we did a better job of going to third options. When you have guys passing the ball, guys, their tendency is to move better. They cut harder, because they know they’re gonna get the ball.
“I think the guys are just figuring it out.”
Rubio recorded 10 points and eight assists and either scored or assisted on 11 of the Timberwolves’ 13 first-quarter shots. They were up 38-24 after his long shot from the wing was ruled a 3 via video review, and Minnesota went on to lead by as many as 39 early in the third.
The Timberwolves’ 108 points through three frames were the most in franchise history.
Star Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving left midway through the first quarter after Brewer inadvertently elbowed him in the jaw. By the time Irving checked back in at 10:29 of the second quarter, the Cavaliers (3-6) were down 41-24.
They wouldn’t get back within 15 points of tying the rest of the way.
“They cut harder, they played harder, they were more physical,” said Cleveland coach Mike Brown, whose team fell to 0-6 on the road.
Rubio increased his NBA-best steals total to 30 and helped limit Irving to 20 points on 8 of 17 shooting. Starting for Andrew Bynum (family situation), Anderson Varejao scored 13.
Love finished short of a double-double for the first time this season almost solely because A.J. Price, Alexey Shved, Derrick Williams, J.J. Barea, Dante Cunningham and Gorgui Dieng played the entire fourth quarter.
They combined to score just 16 points in the fourth, but a bench in desperate need of some adrenaline can find it via extended minutes, Adelman said.
“It helps them because they get a chance to get on the court and play,” Adelman said. “It’s hard. They didn’t really run an offense, but they need to play. They need to find out what their strengths are and how it goes.”
It was an opportunity born from Minnesota’s dominant first half.
“We came out in the start, but they carried it through, the first three quarters especially,” Adelman said. “We just moved the ball so well, we were good at both ends of the court, had a ton of energy.”
All without Martin, the league’s No. 6 scorer who produced 23 or more points in his past five outings.
“Oh yeah,” cracked Love, whose 33 points were a season high, “He’s the weakest link.”
Said Brewer: “We need (Martin) back right away. But it was fun tonight.”