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Updated: January 30th, 2014 5:59pm
Pekovic's absence creates 'big opportunity' for Dante Cunningham

Pekovic's absence creates 'big opportunity' for Dante Cunningham

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- When Ronny Turiaf and Chase Budinger returned to the Minnesota Timberwolves' lineup in early January, it meant an adjustment in roles and playing time for the reserve unit.

The resulting changes have been especially true when it comes to forward Dante Cunningham.

In the first two months of the season, with Turiaf and Budinger sidelined due to injury, Cunningham was a mainstay on the second unit, averaging 19.5 minutes per game. Since Jan. 6, the night Turiaf was activated at Philadelphia, Cunningham's playing time has been cut to an average of 13 minutes in a 12 game stretch.

In turn, his effectiveness has notably ebbed and flowed.

Cunningham is understated when he discusses the situation, though he admits it has taken time to adapt.

"You're just trying to get your groove back and trying to understand what's going on," Cunningham said. "In the second unit it's just hard, Coach is trying to fit everybody in, trying to get everybody time, but it's a tough position for everyone."

But with Nikola Pekovic out for at least a week, the pressure is on the Wolves' entire frontcourt to fill the void.

That message seemed to have taken hold in Cunningham Wednesday in the Wolves' grinding 88-77 victory over New Orleans. The 6-foot-8 forward was a stabilizing presence for the bench. He missed only one of his seven shots en route to 12 points in 20 minutes -- the most he has logged in both categories in more than three weeks.

It was the caliber of performance the Wolves surely need to see more routinely out of him.

"He got it going," coach Rick Adelman remarked postgame about Cunningham's impact. "We need him. We need the energy and we need the energy he brings every night. I know it's hard ... Now he's started to play shorter minutes, but he still needs to bring the energy even if it's not going to be as long or whatever. We need him to bring that for us every night."

After a rough start to January, Minnesota is on the upswing as a winner of five of its last six games. Wednesday wasn't pretty - the Wolves' first full game minus Pekovic - but they did enough to pick up a win that brought them back over the .500 mark for the first time since late-November.

The timetable on Pekovic's return from nagging soreness in his right ankle is somewhat hazy, leaving it questionable whether or not he will be back in the starting lineup before the All-Star break (Feb. 13-18).

Until then, and even onward throughout the season's second half, Cunningham could play a key role in the ongoing cohesion of the second unit.

"This is a big opportunity for him," forward Kevin Love said. "(Wednesday) he took advantage of it. That's something that we're going to need from him, because he's another one of those X-factors for us."

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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