NEWARK, N.J. — A locker-room visitor before the Timberwolves' 108-105 victory at New Jersey on Friday night sensed something strange in the air when he found backup center Nikola Pekovic surrounded by a gaggle of reporters while Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio sat alone at their locker stalls.
Three hours later, big Pek really drew a crowd after a 27-point, 11-rebound night. It was by far his biggest breakout night in the NBA but probably wasn't such a big deal when he starred in Europe, right?
"No," he said, his eyes widening. "I mean, the game is shorter. It's shorter like eight minutes. Whenever you score so much like tonight, it is a big deal."
And indeed it was on Friday, when the Wolves outlasted the injury-ravaged Nets in the final seconds to win for the sixth time in 10 road games and again moved within one victory (11-12) of a .500 record.
Timberwolves Nation -- yup, that's right -- has clamored on Twitter and blogs for two things as this abbreviated 66-game season is now one-third gone: A growing segment wants its team to acquire an accomplished, traditionally sized shooting guard and it really, really, really wants a change at starting center, where Darko Milicic again began Friday's game but played only eight minutes.
Pekovic played nearly 34 minutes, including all but 23 seconds after halftime, on a night when Nets shooting guard Anthony Morrow scored a career-high 42 points of his own.
Morrow made eight of the Nets' 10 three-pointers and the Wolves fouled him three times in the act of attempting one.
The last time, Morrow made the shot and the ensuing free throw in a sequence that left Wolves coach Rick Adelman clutching his hands behind his head, his mouth agape after Morrow suddenly turned the Wolves' comfy five-point lead into a one-point game with 25.7 seconds left.
"We did that twice in the first half," Adelman said dryly, "but we cut it down to just once in the second half."
Adelman sent all three of his point guards onto the court for the final 29 seconds, a configuration that, with J.J. Barea, gave Adelman another ball-handler and free-throw shooter on the floor. Barea and Luke Ridnour made four free throws in the final seconds and then Rubio grabbed a deflected ball to save the game just when the Nets positioned Morrow for one more three-point try that could have forced overtime.
Rubio once again displayed both his toughness and his smarts down the stretch. He created play after play even when the Nets bumped him out of his way, and more than one or two of those creations put the ball in Pekovic's hands.
"He saved me a couple of times," Rubio said with a grin. "I almost throwing up the ball and he was right there. He's a tough guy, really tough, I can tell you. He's a smart guy. He know how to play and he did an unbelievable job today. Maybe he was the key of the game."
Pekovic now has three double-doubles in his past five games, one as a starter when Milicic was ill.
"I'm just trying to play my game, something I've played all my life," Pekovic said. "I try to show that every time when I get a chance. I try not to think, just do."
Have those instincts earned him the starting job when the Wolves play Houston at Target Center on Saturday night? C'mon, Timberwolves Nation wants to know.
"We'll find out," Adelman said with a slight smirk after Friday's game.