MINNEAPOLIS — His size and strength lend themselves to novelty, to funny clips on Jumbotrons and strange, ominous music played after he scores. The beard and the accent, the tattoos that give meaning to the term “body art” — each add to the image.
Seen only in glimpses, he was somewhat of an enigma. But in recent games, Nikola Pekovic has become something more than a caricature. On Tuesday night he was the backbone of his team, the driving force behind the Timberwolves’ 86-84 victory over the Kings.
Kevin Love served the first night of his two-game suspension, and Pekovic’s 23 points went a long way in filling the offensive void left by the star forward’s absence. Not only did he lead the team in scoring, he also energized it while his teammates lagged in the third quarter, scoring 12 of the team’s 21 points.
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“He’s staying within himself,” Timberwolves’ coach Rick Adelman said of Pekovic. “He knows what he can do. You know, he’s so strong. He’s worked at his game, but now I think that he’s been on the court enough that he’s relaxing, and he’s just playing. It’s fun to watch him play.”
The list of things Pekovic can do on the court has grown in recent games. His strength has never been a secret, but the center has shown that he’s a scoring threat and surprisingly agile. He’s also combatted the perception that he’s perennially in foul trouble, and he managed to draw fouls while guarding Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins on Tuesday.
Pekovic knew about Cousins’ big night on Monday, when the Kings big man finished with 28 points and 19 rebounds in Sacramento’s come-from-behind victory in New Orleans. Pekovic also knew that he wasn’t going to let the Kings forward replicate that performance. On Tuesday, Pekovic limited Cousins to just 10 points (and 11 rebounds).
But perhaps the most memorable thing about Pekovic’s night was his agility. He finished with three steals and 10 rebounds, and Adelman joked that the seven-footer would soon want to see minutes at guard. With more experience and confidence, Pekovic has been able to test the limits of his game. He has yet to find them.
“Some of those moves, I have never seen him do,” Derrick Williams said of Pekovic. “It’s just when he gets out there on the court, he breaks into moves. I guess he’s just watching film and stuff like that. He always has a counter for a different move, and that’s the great thing about Pek.”
There was a certain irony to Pekovic’s performance, though. Those weren’t supposed to be his opportunities; they were supposed to be Williams’, or even Anthony Tolliver’s. Pekovic was filling in for Darko Milicic – as he often has in recent games – who suffered a turned right ankle at practice on Monday. Williams started in Love’s spot, yet Pekovic claimed Love’s role, cleaning up his teammates’ mistakes and stepping in when no one else seemed able to.
That’s not to say that Williams squandered his second career start. The rookie was responsible for the 3-pointer with 56 seconds remaining that ended up deciding the game, putting his team up 85-82. Williams started the night strong and fell off in the second and third quarters, but he was able to step up when it counted.
“In the third quarter, he was not very good,” Adelman said of the rookie. “He wasn’t running the floor. I don’t know if he got tired or what. But then when I put him back in the last five minutes, he hit the big 3, he got a couple rebounds. And that’s what we’re looking for.”
In a perfect world, Williams would have dazzled. He would have left the crowd clamoring for more. But as refreshing as that kind of performance would have been, it would also have been more complicated.
Love isn’t injured; he isn’t out long term. There’s no starting spot for Williams, not even much of a chance for increased minutes at Love’s expense. A stellar game from Williams might have forced Adelman to be more creative with the rookie’s minutes, but in the end, Pekovic’s standout performance proved much more practical. Milicic is faltering, and the team needs a long-term solution at center far more than a two-game fix at power forward.
“He certainly has earned a lot of his time,” Adelman said of the center. “If we’re playing well, I would hesitate to try to change that.”
Despite Pekovic’s performance, the game was far from perfect. What could have been an easy night came down to a missed 3-point shot by Sacramento’s Donte Green — a shot Adelman refused to watch despite his close proximity — but a win is still a win.
And even without Love in the Timberwolves’ lineup, Sacramento coach Keith Smart was anything but surprised. Before Tuesday’s game, he talked about the danger of counting out a team when its best player is out, and the Timberwolves’ performance proved his theory correct, at least for a night.
“Sometimes your players have a tendency to think, oh, the best player’s out,” Smart said. “But when you’ve been around the league for a while, you see that’s just the opposite. … I don’t pay that much attention when a guy is out, because those are the games that are going to hurt you.”
The Timberwolves improvised, and Adelman did the most with what he had. Both Williams and Michael Beasley admitted that they missed Love at times, but Pekovic said the team only had time to think about Love’s absence while resting on the bench.
“I think nobody got time (to miss Love), because they was running so fast to fast break,” Pekovic said, laughing. “They was trying to find their players, because it was really tough for us.”
In the end, it didn’t matter why Pekovic was in the starting lineup. It didn’t matter that Williams was inconsistent, or even that Love was absent. It almost did – with a few inches and a slightly different angle on Green’s shot — but the Timberwolves escaped with a win, pushing themselves to a 13-12 record for the first time since 2005-06.
They also made a statement that mattered far more than that fleeting record.
The Timberwolves are more than one All-Star player. On Tuesday night, they had the guts to believe that, and they proved that this team has a foundation that’s greater than just Kevin Love.