Nikola Pekovic settling into new role for Wolves

MINNEAPOLIS — With 7:50 left in the second quarter Saturday

against Boston, Nikola Pekovic suddenly became outmanned.

Timberwolves guard J.J. Barea missed a short, fall-away

jumper, and Pekovic had two Celtics to usurp for an offensive rebound. So he

used his 6-foot-11, 285-pound frame to clear out Jeff Green and stuck out a

massive right arm to corral the ball away from Brandon Bass, then rolled in an

easy two after neither defender felt like getting in his way.

This was the Nikola Pekovic that signed a maximum-length

five-year, $60 million contract extension this summer.

“He ate offensive rebounds,” coach Rick Adelman

said after his team’s 106-88 win. “They had a hard time guarding him.

“It was nice to see him come out and play like

that.”

Especially given the recent circumstances.

Pekovic’s fourth NBA season since coming over from

Montenegro didn’t begin as planned.

Through Minnesota’s first five games, he shot a frustrating 38.9 percent from

the field and averaged 11 points and 9.6 boards.

The team’s leading scorer a year ago — by default, given

Kevin Love’s hand injuries and the Timberwolves’ lack of an outside scoring

threat — often looked rushed. Layups and hooks that used to go in with ease

clanged off the front of the rim. Easy rebounds and pass receptions glanced off

his hands and out of bounds.

Then Pekovic settled down.

He began a gradual rounding into form during wins against

Dallas (14 points, six rebounds) and the Lakers (14, 10). In Pekovic’s last

four games, though, he’s displayed vibrant shades of the big man he was a year

ago — 73.8 percent on field-goal attempts, 17.3 points per game and 35 rebounds.

Call it a welcoming back to the ups and downs of a lengthy

NBA season.

“Sometimes, you score,” said Pekovic, who in the

last four outings improved his shooting percentage from 40.3 to 52.1.

“Sometimes, you don’t score.”

That’s especially true with Love back in the fold and Kevin

Martin new to it. Early in the year, Pekovic said he was still adjusting to

their presence.

It means fewer touches and more opportunities to facilitate

rather than self-create. But it also opens up the floor for Pekovic to do what

he does best: bang people around in the paint and finish at the rim.

“I know I’ve still got the same role, but the two

Kevins, we know they’re going to take majority of the shots,” Pekovic

said. “I’m just trying to find myself inside and try to be open, try to be

in a good position whenever I can, try to go for offensive rebounds.”

He had a season-high eight — one off his career best —

Saturday and added 20 points for his fifth double-double of the year, missing

just one of nine field-goal tries.

The guy Love calls a “bull” even got to shoot a

few free throws and finished 4-for-5 from the foul stripe. He hadn’t been to

the line since last Monday’s game against the Clippers.

“It’s a good feeling just to win the games,”

Pekovic said, “but sometimes when you get a few times at the free-throw

line, you just kind of loosen up your game. You feel it.”

But perhaps the most promising sign for Pekovic is that he

overcame a sprained left ankle in his most efficient outing so far this season.

Nagging lower-body injuries kept him out of 20 games a year ago.

Pekovic’s sharpness and toughness will be further tested

during the next week when the Clippers and Nets travel to the Twin Cities

before the Timberwolves face Houston and Indiana on the road.

But he appears much more ready for that type of gauntlet

than he did seven days ago.

“He’s a load down there, especially when our outside

shots aren’t falling,” Martin said. “We have a guy we can rely on

down there.”

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