Zulgad: Wolves' Nikola Pekovic making the most of his opportunity
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MINNEAPOLIS - Turns out that Ricky Rubio isn't the only player on the Minnesota Timberwolves with impressive moves in the open court.
An announced Target Center crowd of 14,073 found that out Tuesday night when Nikola Pekovic decided that using his 6-foot-11, 290-pound frame to cause havoc around the basket wasn't enough.
Pekovic, or Pek as nearly everyone calls him, was guarding Chuck Hayes near mid-court late in the third quarter when Marcus Thornton attempted a short pass to his Sacramento Kings teammate.
Pekovic was having none of it.
He deftly intercepted the ball and raced down the court before completing the play with a finger-roll layup. Pekovik's teammates erupted off the bench to applaud the big man's display of skill as the second-year player calmly jogged back down the court.
"He steals the ball at half court and takes it the length of the court, so now he's going to want to be a point guard," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. "These big guys always want to be point guards."
Adelman was joking.
He knows that Pekovic is pleased to have simply found a role as the Wolves' primary center. Adelman is equally as pleased that Pekovic appears to be a guy who has every intention of holding onto that job.
His impressive steal and layup on Tuesday was part of a game-high 23-point, 10-rebound performance in a far-too-close 86-84 victory over the Kings. Pekovic also had three steals and two blocked shots in 36 minutes, 33 seconds.
Only Rubio played more minutes for the Wolves and he was on the floor for 36:46.
Pekovic's performance was especially important because Wolves forward Kevin Love was serving the first of his two-game suspension for his stomp on Houston's Luis Scola last Saturday night.
"Of course (I'm tired)," Pekovic said afterward. "The last six minutes were so long. But that's something we need to (be able to) handle here."
Pekovic might have been tired, but he couldn't have been happier about the reason why he was in that condition. He has scored in double figures in five of the past six games and has taken over the starting role from Darko Milicic, who has missed games because of a variety of illnesses or injuries that at this point seem to be popping up on a daily basis.
The cause for Darko's absence on Tuesday was announced as a sprained ankle that he suffered a day earlier in practice. He certainly wasn't missed as Pekovic continued to play a key role for the Wolves.
"He's staying within himself," Adelman said when asked about Pekovic's play of late. "He knows what he can do. He's so strong that he's worked at his game. But now I think he's been on the court enough that he's relaxing and he's just playing. It's fun to watch him play."
Pekovic deserves credit for his perseverance because Adelman did not make it easy for him to get on the court.
Pekovic missed the first seven games of the lockout-shortened season because of a groin injury and did not make his season debut until Jan. 6 against Cleveland. He played a combined total of four minutes over the next two games before sitting out three more as Adelman left him on the bench.
Pekovic's first start did not come until Jan. 27 against San Antonio and that was because Milicic really was ill. Pekovic impressed with 14 points and 10 rebounds in an 87-79 victory over the Spurs.
"I was just trying to keep myself in shape, trying to work hard, trying to do all those things and just waiting for the opportunity," Pekovic said of the approach he took. "Of course, it was tough. But like everybody, if you get some minutes, if you get some chances, I think everybody just tries to use it the best way they can."
If there was any question about Pekovic pulling clear of Milicic in terms of the competition for playing time that came to an end last Friday night in New Jersey.
Milicic started and had two points and five rebounds in eight minutes. Pekovic came off the bench and had a team-high 27 points on 11-for-14 shooting and added 11 rebounds in 33 minutes.
On Tuesday, Pekovic, who averaged 5.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in 65 games last season in his first year in the NBA, demonstrated how much more comfortable he is this season with more than the steal he made of the Thornton pass.
He also slammed home a dunk early in the third quarter after taking a between the legs pass from Rubio to give the Wolves an 11-point lead, and then made a nice turnaround jump shot off a (what else) Rubio pass with 58.5 seconds left in the third quarter to put the Wolves ahead 69-60.
In a quarter in which the Wolves were outscored 24-21 after leading by 12 at halftime, Pekovic scored 12 points and made all six of his field-goal attempts.
The Wolves are now 4-1 with Pekovic starting and he record his fourth double-double of the season Tuesday, all in the past two weeks.
"That guy is hard to stop," Wolves forward Michael Beasley said. "The more you feel like that ... and 300 pounds, 7 feet, it's almost impossible to stop him. He's strong as an ox. He can do what he wants out there."
Baskets by Pekovic are accompanied by the theme music from the "Godfather" at Target Center. Pekovic, a Montenegrin, said he saw the movie when he was young and doesn't mind the fact the classic Mafia film is used as his theme. (Pekovic, who speaks with a thick accent, looks intimidating but comes off as a very down to earth guy.)
Honestly, he's got far bigger things to worry about. On Tuesday, generating offense might not have been Pekovic's biggest worry.
He also was assigned to help slow Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, who had 28 points and 19 rebounds as Sacramento rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat the host New Orleans Hornets, 100-92, on Monday.
Cousins finished with only 10 points in 24 minutes Tuesday and spent longer than he wanted on the bench in part because Pekovic helped get him in early foul trouble.
"What he did is he took the initiative at the offensive end," Adelman said. "He made Cousins guard him. Cousins had a great game last night. Pek went out there and went after him. Got him in foul trouble. Did a nice job. I don't think he picked a foul up in the first half and had a solid game again. He's just playing with a lot of abilities."