Before the Timberwolves hit Los Angeles earlier this week for a back-to-back games against the Lakers and Clippers, Damjan Rudez had become an almost forgotten man.
The reserve forward — acquired before the season in a trade with Indiana in exchange for Chase Budinger — had not played in five games. He had appeared in just three of the Wolves’ past 15 games.
But he was ready.
In 14-plus minutes against the Lakers he made two of his four shots and scored six points. A night later, in a victory over the Clippers, Rudez made all three of his shots — including both three-pointers — and scored eight points in 18½ minutes.
These are not big numbers. But interim coach Sam Mitchell said Rudez was a big key to the victory over the Clippers. “If he doesn’t do what he did … we don’t win the game,” Mitchell said.
“He makes those threes and it creates a little bit more doubt in [Clippers coach] Doc Rivers’ mind of, ‘How much can we really help on Andrew Wiggins?’ ”
If you’re not a regular part of the Wolves’ rotation, you have to be ready when opportunity calls.
“We tell our guys all the time, at some point during the season you’re going to get an opportunity,” Mitchell said. “It’s like a merry-go-round. It’s going to come back to you. What you do with those minutes is going to determine how many more minutes you get.”
To Rudez’s credit, he was ready when the merry-go-round stopped. Mitchell said the way Rudez keeps himself prepared is a model for the entire team. He gets to practice early, stays late.
“When he’s not playing he gets here early,” Mitchell said. “And it’s not just workouts. It’s as close to game speed as you can imitate when you’re not playing. That’s what a pro does.”
Rudez, 29, played in 68 games a year ago for Indiana in his first NBA season, averaging 15.4 minutes and 4.8 points. This season with the Wolves he has played in only 19 games, averaging 9.2 minutes and 2.9 points.
The 6-10 Croatian got his opportunity because of Nemanja Bjelica’s struggles. Before the Lakers game Mitchell and his staff agreed Bjelica needed some time off and decided to give his minutes to Rudez.
“It’s not an easy situation,” Rudez said of his off-and-on playing time. “But it’s the nature of our job. All of us in the NBA have our role, and it’s our job to do the best possible within our abilities.”
It’s not just his shooting. Mitchell said Rudez played active defense, set good screens. But being able to hit three-pointers does loosen things up for the other Wolves players on the floor.
“Right now Rudez has put me in a situation where I have to give him more minutes,” Mitchell said. “I have to figure out how to get him in the game. Because he played well.”
So for now Rudez will get more minutes in Bjelica’s place.
“Bjelica’s been struggling a little bit,” Mitchell said. “It happens during the season. The merry-go-round continues to go around. Bjlelica might not be on it right now. But something will happen at a certain point where he has a chance to get back on.”
Mitchell said Kevin Martin (wrist), Kevin Garnett (knee) and Nikola Pekovic (foot) all missed practice. Martin is listed as questionable, Garnett and Pekovic doubtful. Garnett and Martin have both missed six straight games, Pekovic the past two.