Injuries lead Wolves to find hidden depth

MINNEAPOLIS — He was perfect at the half, with 17 points, running down the court as if he owned it. Not one miss, not one whiff, barely a misstep.

Luke Ridnour was playing like the game depended on him, and in many ways, it did. He’s not the biggest name on the Timberwolves, and he’s often the smallest guy on the court. He blends in, a quiet weapon, and just minutes before that nearly flawless half, Ridnour was debating whether he’d even be able to play against Denver.

Were you questionable before the game, Luke?

“Um . . . ” he paused, smiling in a way that hinted he might be lying. “Nah.”

“Not without J.J. (Barea),” Brad Miller interjected. “They were debating which one.”

That’s what it’s come to for the Timberwolves. The question is no longer whether someone is injured; it’s now a matter of who’s hurting worse, and on Sunday afternoon, Barea was it, suffering from a hip contusion. Ridnour had no choice but to play after getting banged up at the end of Friday’s game in Oklahoma City, and his 25-point night was the epitome of what the Timberwolves are facing at the end of March. Backed into a corner by injuries, time and a 2-5 road trip, they’ve finally discovered their depth, and recent games have proved that this team is more than just Kevin Love.

Sure, Love finished Minnesota’s 117-100 win with 30 points and 21 rebounds, but within the skewed expectations the forward has built for himself, that’s become normal. The real story Sunday was the bench — and the former bench players now forced into a starting role — which carried the team that’s missing its starting point guard and center.

In early March, it was a season of feel-good stories, of 21-year-old phenom Ricky Rubio living up to unimaginable hype, and hulking center Nikola Pekovic becoming a household name in a matter of days.

But that’s now become a different tale entirely for the Timberwolves. Feel-good has faded to disappointing, with Rubio sidelined for the rest of the year with a torn ACL and Pekovic out indefinitely with bone spurs in his right ankle. It all really was too good to be true, and as the Timberwolves neared the end of their two-week road trip, they had a choice. They could feel sorry for themselves, or they could rise above it all.

“We keep on having all these injuries, and guys keep going down,” forward Anthony Tolliver said. “(We) kind of come every day and somebody new is down.  . . . Everybody that’s over on the bench is just taking pride in it and knowing that they’re going to get an opportunity and take advantage of it.”

Tolliver finished Sunday’s game with 10 points and six rebounds, and he’s averaged 16.3 points over his past three games. That’s a substantial improvement for a guy who’s averaging just 4.2 points this season, and he’s the perfect example of a player who faces each day like his team will need him, even when it didn’t for most of the season.

There has to be an adjustment period for players like Tolliver and Wayne Ellington, who saw little to no action for much of February and early March. It’s tough to stay sharp when you’re not playing consistently, Ellington said, but he credited his performance to professionalism, which paid off in a 17-point game Sunday. It might have taken these players who aren’t accustomed to significant minutes a few games to hit their stride, but the rhythm is finally there.

“A lot of guys get down on themselves, but you’ve got to stay positive,” Ellington said. “You’ve got to understand that, keep that confidence in yourself, and when you get out there you’ve got to be able to show what you can do.”

No doubt being part of a system that’s working and having a coach the team can trust and respect goes a long way toward fostering that morale, and it seems that Rick Adelman’s bench is finally heeding his calls to step up. Depth is always necessary, of course, but just a month ago, with Rubio and Pekovic healthy and Love playing like he always does, it didn’t seem imperative. Now, the coach’s demands matter in the utmost, and it may have taken those injuries for the player tso fully hear and understand.

“Early on, it was like, ‘Man, we’ve got too many guys,'” Ellington said. “But now it’s starting to pay off for us when guys are going down. Other guys are stepping up and getting that opportunity to play strong.”

And somehow, despite the new combinations of players on the court, the offense is clicking better than ever in recent games. With 117 points Sunday and 140 Friday, the Timberwolves set a franchise record for most points scored in two consecutive games. They’ve scored 100 or more points in their past three games and in five of the nine games since Rubio’s injury, pushing their average points per game to 99.4 (fifth-best in the league).

Adelman said he’s not surprised at the team’s recent offensive resurgence, even with all the injuries. This team has always been able to score, even in its 17-win season last year. Players are finally learning what they need to do to be successful scorers, the coach said.

Each of those 117 points — every basket from a player who’s had to earn his minutes — contributes to the statement this team wants to make coming off its disappointing road trip. Don’t count them out yet, because even without Rubio, Pekovic and Barea — and whoever is missing in Tuesday’s game, and Wednesday’s — the Timberwolves have a shot. These players want people to know that the effort they displayed in their double-overtime loss to the Thunder on Friday was anything but a fluke, and they can compete with the best in the league.

“After the game, we didn’t hang our heads,” Ellington said of the loss in Oklahoma City. “That’s one of the best teams in the league. We felt like we played a really great game against them. We showed the type of team that we can be. We wanted to keep it rolling, keep it going, and get better and better.”

It was the best way to lose, if such a thing exists, and that feeling stuck with the team when it returned to Minneapolis. Players remembered how they felt before the last game, how coming out of pregame warmups they sensed that they had a shot. Love said he experienced the same thing Sunday; before the game there was some intangible sense that he and his team were going to play well.

It may not have made sense, not with the injuries and the recent struggles. But these things don’t have to make sense, and on Sunday, the Timberwolves proved that being pushed to the brink of failure might not have been the worst thing to happen to this team.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.