NEW ORLEANS – Fewer than 20 minutes before Wednesday’s game at Oklahoma City, Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman learned Kevin Love couldn’t play because of a stiff neck, so he told backup power forward Dante Cunningham to get ready to start and play a lot.
“About 48 minutes, jokingly,” Cunningham said. “But I guess it was for real.”
Cunningham played nearly 43 minutes — his most with the Wolves and only two minutes short of his career high — Wednesday night, when the Wolves played without Love, Nikola Pekovic and Corey Brewer, the entire starting frontcourt.
Fewer than two weeks ago, Cunningham still struggled to find the kind of playing time and good form he discovered last season, when playing time wasn’t much of an issue because Love played just 18 games after breaking his hand twice and veteran backup center Ronny Turiaf hadn’t arrived yet.
Then Pekovic left a game at Chicago last week after only six minutes and hasn’t played since. Then Love fell hard in Tuesday’s victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, his head whipping back violently.
Love remains questionable for Friday night’s game at New Orleans.
Suddenly, limited playing time behind Love at power forward or backup minutes at center in a small lineup isn’t an issue. And suddenly, Cunningham’s spunk and shot have returned.
Cunningham went 9-for-13 from the field and scored 18 points in 42:35 played during Wednesday’s 106-97 loss to the Thunder.
“A guy like D.C., he got an opportunity,” Adelman said, referring to Love’s absence and Cunningham’s presence in Oklahoma City.
“He played great. Competed, rebounded, made shots. I think that’s what you’re looking for when you have guys out like that. You’re looking for the next guy to step up.”
In the three games before Pekovic left the lineup for the first time this season, Cunningham had played just 10, 11 and 10 minutes in those games. He played between 18 and 25 minutes in the first four games after Pekovic was injured and then played those 42-plus minutes Wednesday without both Love and Pekovic.
In those five games, Cunningham has had shooting nights of 6-for-9, 6-for-7 and Wednesday’s 9-for-13 in a season when until recently he has struggled more often than not to find his shot. He credits much of it to being on the court more often and for longer periods.
“I feel right now there are a lot of things going the right way for me,” Cunningham said. “Minutes are there consistently on the court. That’s a good feeling. It’s easy to catch a rhythm that way. I’m out there, I get a feel for the game. I know what I’m looking for. I’m not trying to get warm to find a shot. When I’m out there playing, the shot’s going to come.”
Adelman talked with Cunningham after Pekovic was injured, telling him an opportunity was about to present itself. “I think he was bothered that his minutes had gone down,” Adelman said. “That was just one of those things where Ronny came back [from injury] and was playing behind Pek and D.C. was behind Kevin. So his minutes weren’t the same as last year and he was struggling with it.
“All you can tell them is you have to play the way that helps us in the time you’re on the floor, and that’s by being very active and giving us energy.
“I think you can always tell when he’s really active and he has been really active lately. When you’re active like that, you’re making things happen, you seem to be more aggressive and have more confidence shooting the ball. That’s the way we need him to play.”