NEW ORLEANS – Matched against an opponent threatening to reshape the position they share, on an afternoon when he lost to injury one of two remaining big men beside him, Timberwolves rookie power forward Adreian Payne played on during Sunday’s 110-88 loss at New Orleans and finished 1-1 for the day.
His Wolves fell behind 7-0 and 25-11 early against the Pelicans, who needed to win just to stay close behind Oklahoma City in the chase for the West’s final playoff spot. Unable to get any closer than two points the rest of the afternoon, the Wolves lost their third straight game and for the 13th time in the past 16 games while keeping hold on the NBA’s second-worst record — and second-best draft-lottery chances — with nine games left.
Payne’s Michigan State team, however, beat Louisville to reach the NCAA’s Final Four.
“It’s a great day to be a Spartan,” Payne said.
Payne’s alma mater beat teammate Gorgui Dieng’s Louisville team to advance on a day when it was once again tough to be a Timberwolf and even tougher to be Dieng. He left the game after just nine minutes when he was struck in the head and sustained a facial contusion on the same day the Wolves welcomed Robbie Hummel and Anthony Bennett back after weeks away injured.
“We’re cursed this year,” Wolves rookie Andrew Wiggins said.
With Dieng sidelined, the Wolves were left with Payne and backup center Justin Hamilton as their only two big men, in a game against Pelicans blossoming superstar Anthony Davis, who delivered, by his recent standards, a mere 28 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and a blocked shot.
“It was a huge challenge, he’s a great player,” Payne said. “I just wanted to play good.”
Afterward, Wolves coach Flip Saunders praised both Payne’s afternoon and his 20-game tenure. Payne provided 14 points, 11 rebounds and two steals but also had four of the team’s 21 turnovers, which Saunders called far too many.
“He really competed against Davis,” Saunders said. “For a young guy who has played 20 games in the NBA, he competed against probably the best power forward in the game.”
Acquired from Atlanta last month for a future first-round pick, Payne gives the Wolves the kind of height, wingspan and athleticism they previously lacked at the power-forward position. They’re the kind of attributes needed against Davis, who has added an outside scoring game to his freakish shot-blocking abilities.
“We were both gifted,” Payne said. “It helps us both out.”
Payne started Sunday for the 10th time in 11 games and is shooting 50 percent from the field in his past 12 games.
“Like all young guys, he has good days and bad days,” Saunders said. “Some days he’s really good. Some days he struggles. But he keeps on competing, which is the main thing.”
Saunders lamented his team’s many turnovers, one of which came when Payne pushed the ball in the open court and tried to elude a defender by dribbling behind his back. Dante Cunningham stole it.
“That’s something I think I’ll be able to do,” Payne said about handling the ball in the open court. “I meant to go back there, but I didn’t know somebody else was coming up behind me.”
Kilpatrick not retained
To make room for the return of Hummel and Bennett, the Wolves let D League guard Sean Kilpatrick’s 10-day contract expire and don’t have the roster room to re-sign him. He helped win a game at Utah.
Hummel played 17-plus minutes in his first game since he fractured his right shooting hand two months ago in Atlanta and Bennett played 11-plus in his first action since he sprained his ankle five weeks ago.
“A.B. especially is really rusty,” Saunders said. “I thought Robbie did OK.”
Is Rubio ready?
Saunders said he’s “optimistic” point guard Ricky Rubio will return Monday against Utah at Target Center. Rubio didn’t play Sunday for the eighth time in nine games because of a sore ankle. Kevin Garnett was ill again on Sunday as he has been for several days, Saunders said.
Garnett missed his 10th straight game both because of a sore knee and illness. “It’s a little bit of a setback,” Saunders said, adding that Garnett has been unable to eat for several days. “He hasn’t been on the floor to see how his knee feels, either.”
• The Wolves played without Kevin Martin (hamstrings) and Shabazz Muhammad (finger) as well. Muhammad was ill. Gary Neal and Nikola Pekovic didn’t make the trip.
• Saunders said Bennett “resprained his ankle a little” near game’s end. But Bennett said, “It felt good. It just got a little sore near the end, but I tried to push through.”