SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – The Timberwolves welcomed two starters back after weeks away injured….and lived to tell about it with a 108-97 victory at Sacramento on Saturday night.
The Wolves repelled the Kings’ fourth-quarter comeback and kept their playoff aspirations percolating by winning for the fifth time in six games, this time with both Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin back in the starting lineup and on the floor at game’s end for the first time in weeks.
“It’s going to take a little while,” Wolves star Kevin Love said about integrating both players back into a team that learned to win without them. “But it didn’t look like it tonight.”
Leading by 15 points during a transformational third quarter and by eight points with as little as 3 ½ minutes left, the Wolves allowed the Kings to get within 97-95 with 2:09 remaining before they finished with a closing 11-2 flourish anchored by Ricky Rubio’s clutch three-point shot.
That gave the Wolves a 102-95 lead with 53.4 seconds left after Rubio had attempted just three shots – and just one three-pointer – all night.
“I was open,” Rubio said simply, “so I took it.”
The Wolves now are 3-1 on a five-game trip that began a week earlier at Utah and ends Monday at Denver.
“It’s the type of game we need to keep winning,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said afterward. “We don’t know what’s ahead for us, but we do know we have one more game left on the road trip and then we go home for a home stand. It’s there for us.”
The victory pushed the Wolves back to even for the season, at 29-29. They trail Phoenix by five games for the West’s eighth and final playoff spot and ninth-place Memphis by four games.
After Monday’s game, they go home to play 10 of their next 15 games at home, including three of their first four there against teams with losing records.
Martin played 34-plus minutes in his first game back since he fractured a bone in the thumb of his left non-shooting hand three weeks ago at New Orleans and scored 19 of his 26 points by halftime.
“It was just great to be out there with the guys,” Martin said. “Basketball is the easy part. It was actually tougher sitting out and not playing than it is playing.”
Pekovic played nearly 28 minutes, which Adelman acknowledged was more than the 20-22 minute limit stated by the team’s medical staff and delivered a 20-point, 9-rebound performance in which his team needed his presence against Sacramento’s big, bruising DeMarcus Cousins (21 points, 17 rebounds).
It also needed his two free throws with 1:27 left that pushed the Kings back for one final time after Sacramento guard Isaiah Thomas’ jump shot got them within a basket.
“I don’t want to argue with Coach,” Pekovic said, smiling when asked about his playing time.
He hadn’t played since a Jan. 27 game at Chicago because of bursitis in his right ankle.
“Solid,” Pekovic said when asked how he felt out there. “Not great, not bad, somewhere between. I was just trying to be productive, try to do as much as I can. There was pain, it’s going to be there all the time. They say it’s safe to play with pain and I’m playing.”
The Wolves changed the game with a 24-6 run that started the second half and turned a 56-53 halftime deficit into a 77-62 lead when Love finished that burst by making a three-point shot with 4:12 remaining in the third quarter.
The Wolves outscored the Kings 31-14 in that third quarter, which is the fewest an opponent has scored against them in a third quarter this season.
That third quarter came after Adelman let his team know his displeasure with their first-half defense that allowed the Kings to shoot 70 percent in the first quarter and nearly 55 percent for the half.
“We’re not going to go anywhere if we don’t defend better than that,” Adelman said.
That defense also allowed Kings star Rudy Gay to score 22 points before halftime but just two points after it.
“He gave us a pretty good speech about not talking about it and doing it,” Martin said of a lecture Adelman delivered in the huddle just before the third quarter’s start. “We took pride in that and that’s what we did, just getting stops.”
Wolves forward Corey Brewer helped limit Gay to just one field-goal attempt in the third quarter and three in the second half after Gay made four first-half three-pointers and shot what Adelman called at least “three wide-open” threes.
“Twenty-two in the first half,” Brewer said. “I thought if we stopped him, we’d win the game. I think I did a pretty good job, give him two. That ain’t too bad a second half. We just came and knew we had to get stops. We didn’t get no stops in the first half. Everybody took the challenge individually and we had to guard their guy, and I think everybody guarded their guy.”