His sprained ankle hurting, his body drained and his spirit discouraged, Timberwolves star Kevin Love came to a realization late Saturday night in Atlanta, if he hadn’t already arrived there two days or months and months before.
“We need Pek back,” he said.
Without big Nikola Pekovic beside him, Love discovered in losses Friday to Memphis and Saturday to Atlanta just how much more difficult life for him can be, even if Love went for 43 points and 19 rebounds in a 120-113 loss to the Hawks.
“To not have Pek in a game like this — really the last two games — is really tough because he just takes up so much space,” Love said. “You’re having to make up for 20 points and 10 rebounds.”
Love has scored 40 or more points in a game three times now this season, and the Wolves are 0-3 in those games.
“I didn’t even know I had it until K-Mart told me after the game,” Love said, referring to teammate Kevin Martin. “I was just trying to get us back in the game by any means.”
Since 1986, Love and big man Patrick Ewing are the only NBA players who have had a 43-point, 19-rebound game twice in the same season. Love had a 45-point, 19-rebound game against the Clippers in Los Angeles just before Christmas.
“I pride myself on being efficient and being a good scorer,” said Love, who reached the free-throw line Saturday for 18 shots and made 17 of them. “If I had to guess, I’d say we were fighting behind in those [three] games. I’m doing whatever I can to get us over the hump.”
On Saturday, Love’s offensive efforts again weren’t enough because he and his team surrendered 38 third-quarter and 72 second-half points after they had led the Hawks by 11 points just before halftime.
“He played his tail off and he kept battling,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said after the game. “I’ve got to look at the defensive end in the second half. We weren’t very good. … There are two ends of the court, and we didn’t do very well at one end.”
Adelman and Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders knew when they signed Pekovic to a five-year, $60 million contract last summer that the team had invested more than $120 million in Love and Pekovic as a frontcourt tandem but didn’t have a shot-blocking, rim-protecting big man among them.
Pekovic’s absence the past two games — after he started the season’s first 44 games — demonstrated the difference his physical presence makes, particularly offensively where he prevents opposing defenses from focusing so intently on Love.
Without Pekovic, Adelman has started veteran backup Ronny Turiaf at center and expanded veteran forward Dante Cunningham’s playing time while rookie Gorgui Dieng — the team’s most physically gifted shot blocker — played 13 minutes against Memphis and not at all at Atlanta.
“Of course we miss him,” Adelman said. “But he’s not here.”
Pekovic walked into Atlanta’s Philips Arena on Saturday night wearing a protective boot on his foot that he’ll keep on for at least the next few days until the ankle bursitis calms down. He began feeling discomfort in his heel during a Jan. 18 game against Utah and it grew persistently worse, until it flared up after he played back-to-back games at Golden State and Portland and could only play six minutes the next time out, at Chicago.
He said he’s hopeful he will be cleared by doctors later this week so he can prepare to return to play in games.
“I hope, I hope,” Pekovic said. “I would like now to tell you after a week [resting his foot] I’ll be fine and play the next game. I just can’t tell you after a week, I can’t go into a full practice [and play immediately]. I’ll go day or two and see how it feels.”
He calls the bursitis “not bad” and having to watch teammates battle opposing big men — particularly Memphis’ tag-team of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol — worse.
“It was a really tough job watching because they have like two big guys,” Pekovic said, referring to Friday’s game. “It’s not nice when you can’t help your teammates. Sometimes you have to sit down so you can help in the future.”