With starting center Nikola Pekovic out once again because of that bothersome right ankle Sunday, the Timberwolves asked rookie Gorgui Dieng to produce a career performance. In his first career start, he delivered just what they needed in a 104-102 victory over Sacramento.
Dieng played 37 indispensable minutes — 15 more than his career high. That gave star Kevin Love’s weary body some much-needed rest and coincided with the Kings resting star center DeMarcus Cousins (knee tendinitis) at the end of a seven-game trip.
Dieng delivered 12 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots, all highs in a short career that now numbers just 43 games.
“I was just like ready, I was ready to play,” Dieng said afterward. “They needed me tonight. A lot of guys go down on this basketball team, and when you get a chance, you need to step up. I got a chance, and I did all right.”
Dieng’s play pushed the Wolves back above .500 for the season at 33-32. Both he and fellow rookie Robbie Hummel provided decisive contributions while Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas and former Timberwolves lottery pick Derrick Williams wouldn’t let the Kings go quietly into the good night, even with Cousins missing.
“I was surprised, I didn’t expect that,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said of Cousins sitting out. “But we didn’t have our big guy playing, either. Maybe they were trying to be fair.”
Without their own double-double machine, the Kings erased a 10-point, first-quarter deficit and led 54-53 at halftime. They led by a point again with just 1:26 left in the game before Love delivered a crucial three-point shot with fresh enough legs that sent the Wolves on a 6-0 run and a 100-95 lead with 16.7 seconds remaining.
Dieng’s presence gave Love a fourth-quarter breather and allowed him to play only 38½ minutes.
“I needed some rest,” Love said. ‘‘For Cousins not to be in helped me more than anybody,” Love said.
But just as Denver did at Target Center last month, the Kings fired up threes at game’s end, and made them. Thomas’ consecutive three-pointers within seven seconds forced Wolves guard Kevin Martin to make six free throws in those final 16 seconds. And Dieng found himself at the free-throw line with just one second remaining as the Wolves gripped that 104-102 lead tight.
“I told J.J. let’s not have another Denver situation,” Love said, referring to teammate J.J. Barea, “and we had another Denver situation.”
When Dieng missed the first free throw, Adelman called a timeout, during which he instructed Dieng to miss his second shot but still hit the rim so the Kings would have no chance to heave a winning shot.
He did as he was told and Adelman reacted with rare emotion when he did so.
“He was teaching me how to miss it,” Dieng said. “So when I hit the rim and missed it, he gave me a high-five.”
His teammates praised Dieng also for an aim that was just good enough.
“I think he wasn’t supposed to miss the first one,” Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio said. “But he did a great a job missing the second one, so we give him credit for that.”
His teammates also gave him credit for everything else he did, and they needed all of it and then some.
“Without him, we wouldn’t have won the game,” Martin said after scoring a game-high 31 points that included 14-for-14 shooting from the free-throw line. “Without Robbie [Hummel], we wouldn’t have won the game.”
The little-used Hummel played all of his 10 minutes in a valuable fourth-quarter stretch in which he scored six points and provided defense at the power-forward spot against both Rudy Gay and Williams.
The former Timberwolf followed January’s 16-point game at Target Center with 26 points and 11 rebounds Sunday.
“He seems to play really well in Target Center now, not that he was bad before,” Hummel said with a smile. “But he’s really stepped his play up as of late in the last two meetings here.”