Feeding the ball to burly Nikola Pekovic got results all evening, and the strategy remained sound at crunch time.
Given the fact the Timberwolves had begun to have a problem finishing games, there was reason for concern Saturday at Target Center when, with 3 minutes, 47 seconds left in the game with Phoenix, forward Jared Dudley's finger roll gave the Suns a three-point lead, their biggest of the night.
But Nikola Pekovic was having none of that.
With the game on the line, he scored six points in an 8-4 run that gave the Wolves the lead for good in a 111-107 victory over the Suns.
It was a victory earned without Ricky Rubio, who was a late scratch. He was suffering from back spasms that first hit him in practice Friday. And it was won inside, in the paint, where the Wolves finally figured out that it was time to make the Suns pay for playing small.
"These previous few games, we were struggling with the fourth quarter, the last few minutes," said Pekovic, who finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds. "We were making some mistakes. Tonight we played smart all the way to the end."
They did it with a three-guard rotation, and with a frontcourt of Pekovic, Kevin Love and Andrei Kirilenko that combined for 71 points and 34 rebounds. Pekovic, Love (23 points, 18 rebounds) and guard Alexey Shved (12 points, 10 assists) all had double-doubles for the Wolves, who had lost two in a row and four of their past five games.
"We thought we had an advantage underneath," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said.
The Wolves rolled the dice much of the night, gambling that pounding the ball inside would make up for difficulties at the other end. Especially regarding Suns big man Luis Scola, who scored a game-high 33 points on 16-for-26 shooting.
But it was the decision to go at Scola at the other end that ended up turning the game for the Wolves, who had led by as many as nine in the third quarter.
After Dudley scored to give the Suns a 102-99 lead, J.J. Barea fed Pekovic for a short running hook. Moments later, Kirilenko fed Pekovic for a layup and one-point Wolves lead. Dudley's jumper was matched by a baseline jumper by Luke Ridnour. After Scola scored to give the Suns their final lead of the game, Kirilenko fed Pekovic for another layup and a 107-106 Wolves lead with 1:37 left.
"We needed someone to step up," Barea said. "I was like, 'Hey, let's keep going to Pek. Throw the ball in.' He did a good job of finishing."
So did the Wolves.
Suns guard Shannon Brown missed a 17-footer and Shved made two free throws with 55.3 seconds left. Scola hit one free throw and so did Shved, making it 110-107 with 8.1 seconds left.
And then came the stand. The Suns had turned the ball over only three times when, coming out of a timeout, they attempted an inbounds pass with 7.7 seconds left. But Dudley's pass was intercepted by Dante Cunningham, who made one of two free throws -- missing the first, then getting a friendly roll on the second -- to ice the game.
On a night when the Suns outscored the Wolves 13-5 on points off turnovers, the Wolves picked the right time to force a big turnover.
And to go big inside.
"He had an advantage inside," Adelman said of Pekovic. "When they go small on him he can roll down the middle. We have to find him. The one advantage with Kevin [Love] is they don't leave Kevin on the perimeter, so it's a small guy trying to pick [Pekovic] up."
Saturday Pekovic made that small guy -- Scola -- pay.
"Pek's been playing awesome," Love said. "He's just been so consistent."
|Coll of Charleston||53|
|William & Mary||57|
|(17) Florida State||110|
|(9) Oregon State||68||FINAL|
|(13) Arizona State||57|
|(12) North Carolina||67|