For the first time in 10 months, Nikola Pekovic put on a Timberwolves jersey and checked into an NBA game.
It happened with 4 minutes, 25 seconds left in the first quarter of Minnesota’s 78-74 loss to Denver at Target Center on Wednesday. It was a moment Pekovic — who had surgery on his right Achilles’ tendon in April — had anticipated for a long, long time.
“It’s a kind of relief,” Pekovic said shortly before the game began.
Pekovic’s ankle has been bothering him for a while. For the better part of two years, the big, physical center has battled the pain. He tried all sorts of treatments. There were times when he felt he might not play again. Even after surgery, there were months of rehab to get to this point.
“For two years, there was no light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “But, in the end, it shows that hard work can pay off. It’s a good feeling to be with the guys again. This is what we do, and it’s good to be a part of it.”
Pekovic took a pass from Gorgui Dieng and scored only 22 seconds into his stint. He finished with 12 points and two rebounds in 16 minutes.
There is still some pain, and will be for a while. And it will take time for Pekovic to get anywhere near top form. The Wolves are in the middle of the season, and Pekovic is still trying to get up to speed.
“It’s going to be a process,” Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell said. “Pek hasn’t played in about a year now, so we have to tone down our expectations.”
But once Pekovic gets close to being himself?
“Hopefully he brings that size, that other big, that post defense, scoring inside,” Mitchell said. “His size, that matters. You guys have watched us these 35 games. It matters. We’re just not big physically. We’re young and Pek is physically our most mature player.”
After Wednesday’s morning shoot, Pekovic talked about being both excited and scared for his season debut. Since it’s been so long since he played, he feels in a way like he’s starting over with basketball. But, after being faced with the prospect of not playing again, taking another step by taking the court was thrilling.
“It’s good to be a part of the team again,” he said. “That’s the great feeling.”
More is better
Shabazz Muhammad has made the most of more minutes. In the three games before Wednesday, Muhammad played heavy minutes and made significant contributions. In a loss at Philadelphia on Monday, he came off the bench to post season highs in minutes (34:21), field goals (eight) and points (20). He scored seven points in 16 minutes against the Nuggets.
“It’s going good for me right now,” said Muhammad, who has shot 18-for-29 in his past three games and includes 3-for-5 on three-pointers. “I’ve been thriving off my energy, been scoring the ball well, putting extra work in on my jump shot, my floater, stuff like that. That stuff is falling for me right now.”
Mitchell likes all of that; Muhammad always brings energy when he plays. But what caught Mitchell’s eye was a play Muhammad made in the victory over Utah on Dec. 30.
“Tyus [Jones] cut back door and Bazz hit him for a perfect bounce pass,” Mitchell said. “You draw two defenders, you gotta make that extra pass. That’s the thing we’ve been working with Bazz on.”
Muhammad has been working hard on just about everything, regularly coming into the practice facility at odd hours to put in extra time, including a long session on his own late Tuesday night.
“I was working on the corner three,” he said. “And the floater.”
• Veteran guard Kevin Martin played for the first time in eight games and scored nine points on 3-for-9 shooting.