NEW ORLEANS – When opportunity beckoned Wednesday, Timberwolves backup center Gorgui Dieng answered with a 25-minute, 12-point, 8-rebound performance that fueled his team’s second unit.
The Wolves’ bench outscored the Pelicans reserves 45-17 in a 104-98 victory during which the Wolves — OK, Jimmy Butler — scored the game’s final six points.
Dieng was called upon to play at least 10 minutes more than he had in any of the Wolves’ first seven games after starting center Karl-Anthony Towns picked up two personal fouls in the game’s first seven minutes, his third by early in the second quarter and his fourth by early in the third quarter and his fifth with 5:16 left in the game.
Towns played just 22½ minutes and scored just two points because of that persistent foul trouble while New Orleans big men DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis together scored 59 points — and still lost.
Dieng, meanwhile, found the kind of playing time and rhythm that a year ago earned him a four-year, $62.8 million contract starting this season. He also found the kind of open shots from the perimeter — 4-for-8 from the field, including a three-pointer — that presented themselves too infrequently during the season’s opening weeks.
“I mean, there was an opportunity for me to play, and I had to step up,” Dieng said. “That’s it.”
A season ago, he started all 82 games and finished the season 20th in the NBA in minutes played at 32.3 a night. Most of them were at power forward alongside Towns at center, but the signing of starting power forward Taj Gibson last season and Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau’s intention to play Nemanja Bjelica as Gibson’s backup has changed things.
Last month’s season opener at San Antonio ended Dieng’s streak of 118 consecutive games started and until Wednesday, he seldom looked like the player who earned all that playing time and money last year.
He admits he has struggled to find the same kind of efficiency and production in this new role so far.
“It’s not easy,” Dieng said. “I thought when I got on the bench I probably was going to play more. It’s not something I can control, but it’s not easy. Basically when you start getting a rhythm, that’s when you’re going to come out. With the minutes I’ve been playing, I think I’m playing OK. It’s tough to do a lot of things in 12 minutes … I don’t know, man. I’m sure everyone wants to play.”
Until Wednesday, Dieng averaged 13.6 minutes in each of the Wolves’ first seven games. He is getting paid a $14.1 million salary — the team’s third highest this season behind Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler — and being asked to play far less for a team that has started the season 5-3.
“I’m not trying to be here stealing or nothing,” Dieng said. “I don’t want to have the mentality, ‘OK, I got paid.’ I’m here for a reason. I’m here to play well. I’m here to play to win. We have a better team this year. That’s the most important thing right now. So I’m coming in here every day, working. If I don’t play a lot of minutes, I get in early, work on my conditioning, work on my game, try and stay ready.”
He was ready when needed Wednesday.
Afterward, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau was asked if Dieng had found a rhythm to his game in the 25:26 he played. Remember this is a man whose oft-repeated sayings include this one: Do your job.
“I don’t know if [he has to] find a rhythm,” Thibodeau said. “He has got to do what we need him to do: Play tough. Play defense. Set great screens. The bench is important. So whatever minutes you’re getting, go out there and play well.
‘‘ … You can find an excuse every night, whether you start or whether you come off the bench, whether you play starter’s minutes or shorter minutes. Just play well with the minutes you have.”
Wolves veteran guard Jamal Crawford long has been where Dieng is going. He knows the adjustment required, both physically to ensure his conditioning is good enough when called upon to play increased minutes and mentally.
“It is different, especially at first,” Crawford said. “It just takes time. It’ll get better as the season goes on. You never know how the season will play out. He understands he has somebody like KAT right there with him. We’re all on the same team. We compete against each other in practice, but we’re all pulling each other in the right direction.
‘‘Gorgui is a pro. He really is. He’ll stay ready, and he’ll always be ready.”
That means arriving early, staying late and waiting for a bigger chance, such as Wednesday’s.
“I mean, I’m going to be a pro,” Dieng said. “Some nights are not the minutes I want to play, but my job is to stay ready.”