PHOENIX – For a moment there in Tuesday’s fourth quarter — or maybe for all of it — Timberwolves rookie forward Shabazz Muhammad played the game the way he always had.
“I was so in the game,” he said. “I was in the zone.”
He was in that game at Phoenix so much he claimed he never looked toward Wolves coach Rick Adelman to see if a guy who has barely played when it mattered until Saturday might be coming out.
He never did.
Muhammad played every second of the fourth quarter, and a career-high 24 minutes. His scoring, rebounding and physical presence proved fundamental in a comeback from eight points behind with eight minutes remaining in a critical 110-101 victory over the Suns.
“Fourth quarter,” he said, “that’s always been my time.”
And so it was once again Tuesday, when he scored 10 of his 20 points and had five of his six rebounds in that fourth quarter.
That’s the way it always had been since he was an AAU phenom — says so right on his Twitter handle @phenomballa15 — and nationally acclaimed prep prospect at Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High School all the way through one uneven collegiate season at UCLA.
Then he arrived this season in the NBA and Minnesota, where he sat and watched — except for a four-game D-League assignment in January — until three games ago.
Adelman called upon Muhammad beginning last Saturday at Utah because he needed to replace 38 points missing by the absence of injured starters Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin. He was drafted 14th overall last summer specifically because of his scoring ability.
On Tuesday, he supplied that scoring more inside than outside as well as providing a physical presence on the backboards at both ends of the court.
His performance was what Adelman praised as staying within his strengths rather than hunting for shots.
“That’s what he can do,” Adelman said. “Sometimes young people don’t take that to heart when they’re not playing. I told him all along it’s a long season here. He had an opportunity with all the injuries, and he really produced. He gives us a lot of energy. He’s not going to back away. We knew that. Every practice he doesn’t back away. It’s good to see him get results.”
Adelman praised Muhammad’s competitiveness and offensive rebounding way back in training camp last October. Then the regular season arrived and Muhammad became something beyond an afterthought while Adelman turned, understandably, to veterans Martin, Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger and, surprisingly, to fellow rookie Robbie Hummel, a player Adelman praised for always being in the right place at the right time.
“We see it all the time from him in practice,” teammate Kevin Love said of Muhammad. “He took advantage of the opportunity [Tuesday]. He’s a rookie so he’s still learning, but he’s going to get better.
‘‘He’s a strong kid. There’s an intensity and a physicality he brings to the game. [Phoenix forward P.J.] Tucker is a physical player, and he’s out there pushing people around, and Bazz matched that. He’s 21 years old. There’s a lot of room to improve there, but there’s a lot of strength.”
Muhammad’s only previous emergence was that four-game D League assignment, where he averaged 24.5 points.
“Definitely a different feeling,” he said, comparing the D League Showcase in Reno, Nev., to a Tuesday night in Phoenix. “This is the best of the best.”
Muhammad has waited 54 games for his opportunity and could discover as soon as Saturday’s game at Sacramento if there’s still playing time for him when Martin and Pekovic return to the lineup.
“Coach Adelman was always like, ‘You’re going to get your chance, your opportunity’ and I always believed him,” Muhammad said. “That’s why I kept working on my game. It came and I thought I responded pretty well.”