Playing Spurs in Mexico City presents pros and cons for Wolves

MINNEAPOLIS — Before the Timberwolves’ flight touched down

Monday afternoon, well-traveled big man Nikola Pekovic had never been to

Mexico.

The Montenegro native and six of his teammates have

traversed countless state lines and bodies of water on their way to the NBA.

It’s why the league opted to include Minnesota and equally internationally

assembled San Antonio in Wednesday’s NBA Global Games matchup in Mexico City.

“It’s something different for us,” said Pekovic,

who played professionally in the Greek League and Serbian SuperLeague before

the Timberwolves drafted him in 2008. “It’s my first time there, so I’m

looking forward to it.”

The team’s sojourn south of the border allows Pekovic to

catch a glimpse of life in Mexico’s capital township — a bustling, cultural

epicenter with some rather rough pockets (some media members were instructed

not to leave their hotel during their stay). It affords point guards Ricky

Rubio and J.J. Barea opportunities to talk in their native tongue more

frequently.

“It’s great for me,” said Barea, a Puerto Rican,

“because I get to speak Spanish with everyone.”

And participation in the NBA’s David Stern-driven efforts to

cultivate a worldwide audience — and the glut of TV and merchandise revenues

that come with it — is something players take seriously, veteran shooting

guard Kevin Martin said.

“You have to represent the NBA [well],” Martin

said, “because you know so many countries across the world, they watch the

NBA and they love the NBA.”

Yet for all the outreach, image and experiential plusses

this early-season trip offers Minnesota’s players and fans, there are still

causes for concern.

All coach Rick Adelman sees is a home game being played

1,800 miles away against a conference foe that came within a hair of hoisting

the NBA Finals trophy last year.

Not quite as quaint.

When asked about the trip, Adelman at first said he didn’t

want to talk about it. Then the 23rd-year head man let loose one of several

2013 diatribes regarding his team’s schedule.

“I have no comment on Mexico,” Adelman said, then

continued: “It absolutely makes no — really, when you have 41 home games,

it’s not a good idea to give a home game against the Western Conference

champions away. It’s just me. I’d rather play them here.”

Adelman looks only through the lens of a coach trying to

resurrect a floundering franchise. Minnesota already has played five

back-to-backs and by the end of the season will have logged more traveling miles

than any other team.

A rough November slate that doesn’t slough in difficulty

this month has the Timberwolves treading water at 9-10 and sitting at fourth

place in the Northwest Division. Trying to slow down the West-leading Spurs on

a neutral court far, far away from the Target Center confines doesn’t exactly

represent a prime opportunity for restoration.

An altitude of 7,943 feet above sea level also presents a

challenge, though both teams will have had almost three days to acclimate by

Wednesday’s 8:30 p.m. CT tipoff.

It was a league decision agreed upon by Timberwolves brass

looking to expand their own brand; Minnesota’s diverse roster featuring eight

different countries renders it a highly marketable organization overseas. Along

with Pekovic, Barea and Rubio (Spain), Luc Mbah a Moute (Cameroon), Ronny

Turiaf (Martinique), Alexey Shved (Russia), and Gorgui Dieng (Senegal) give

Minnesota what Turiaf called an “international flavor.”

Adelman doesn’t like it, but he does get it.

“It was made through the summer,” Adelman said.

“We have to deal with it. (The Spurs are) going there, too. But they’re a

little closer than we are.”

After European players began making an NBA impact in the

early 1990s, San Antonio wrote the book on scouting and developing players from

the world over en route to four championships since 1999. This year’s group

includes Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Aron Baynes (Australia), Patty Mills

(Australia), Tiago Splitter (Brazil), Cory Joseph (Canada), Nando De Colo

(France), Boris Diaw (France), Tony Parker (France), Marco Belinelli (Italy)

and Tim Duncan (U.S. Virgin Islands).

Wednesday’s game will feature an NBA single-game-record 17

international players.

Both teams have fared well in exhibition games played

abroad, especially San Antonio. The Spurs are 8-1 in international games and

3-1 in Mexico City, though they’ve yet to contest a regular-season tilt outside

of the United States or Toronto.

Minnesota (4-2 in overseas contests) did that twice on

back-to-back nights as part of the 1999 NBA Japan Games. Their opponent then?

The Adelman-led Sacramento Kings.

Then, as now, both teams expressed an outward appreciation

for the moment, tempered by recognition that performance is paramount.

“It’s still big game for us,” Pekovic said.

“We need the win.”

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