Timberwolves center Ronny Turiaf has played for seven teams in his nine-year NBA career, but wherever he goes he still carries with him a little bit of the Los Angeles Lakers, Tuesday’s opponent at Target Center.
He does so because the Lakers drafted him in 2005’s second round and soon after was diagnosed with an enlarged aortic root. Lakers owner Jerry Buss paid for an open-heart surgery that saved Turiaf’s pro career and perhaps his life.
Three years later, the team welcomed him with a scoreboard video tribute in his first game back after he signed a free-agent offer with Golden State.
“A piece of my heart stayed there and always will be there,” said Turiaf, who hasn’t played for the Lakers since 2008.
Tuesday, he faces once again his former team, this time as the starting center for the Wolves as long as starter Nikola Pekovic remains sidelined by ankle bursitis.
Pekovic was out of a protective boot Monday, one week after he played only six minutes and left a game in Chicago because of pain in his heel that bothered him for the previous 10 days.
It’s uncertain when Pekovic will return, and until he does Turiaf will start in his place, trying with his spirit and interior defense to compensate for what teammate Kevin Love calls the 20 points and 10 rebounds the Wolves miss nightly without Pekovic.
“Pek goes down, I’m the next in line so I have to step in his shoes,” Turiaf said. “I just have to be myself. It’s not like I’m trying to go out there and score 25 points and get 15 rebounds, like Pek does. I might get those 15 rebounds, but I might block shots and be a little more active on defense. Pek and I do different stuff.
“So it’s just a matter of me going out there and playing my game and not worrying about duplicating what Pek does because I know who I am. Last time I checked, my name was Ronny Turiaf.”
Turiaf had 10 rebounds in Friday’s loss to Memphis and he had five blocked shots in Saturday’s loss at Atlanta. After winning five of six, the Wolves have slipped back in their pursuit of a playoff spot because of those two losses, games in which two physical opposing front lines exploited Pekovic’s absence.
“He has been great defensively, blocking a lot of shots and giving us a lot of energy,” Love said. “It’s not necessarily going to be the offensive output that you see from Pek, but as far as energy and on the defensive end, he’s great.”
The Wolves will play on without Pekovic by using Turiaf, forward Dante Cunningham, rookie Gorgui Dieng and Love at the center spot. Dieng played 13 minutes against Memphis but not at all against Atlanta because the Hawks often played a small lineup.
“We’ll need both of those guys,” Adelman said of Turiaf and Dieng. “We have to find a way to be effective with both guys on the court with Kevin. We’ll have to figure it out as we go. Ronny will intimidate some people at the rim. He’ll block some shots. It’s a different kind of player [than Pekovic], but that’s what happens in this league when you lose people.
“Others have to step up. I keep saying it’s just not Ronny, either. It’s the whole team that has to do more. They have to take on more responsibility with Pek out.”
Tuesday’s game will be Turiaf’s 99th career regular-season start. He also has started 11 playoff games, including seven during Miami’s run to the 2012 NBA title.
“Do I have a choice?” Turiaf said when asked how he’s adapting to the move from the bench to a starter’s role. “I’m adjusting to it. This is different, but it’s nothing I haven’t done in the past. I’ve started plenty of games before: In the playoffs, conference finals, whatever the circumstances were. This is something I’m used to do, stepping in when somebody else goes down. It’s just a matter of going out there, being myself and hoping for the best.”