TrueHoop: Nikola Pekovic

'Bruise Brothers' the answer for Wolves?

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
1:43
AM ET
Harper By Zach Harper
Special to ESPN.com
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As this reconstruction of the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise has been executed over the past few years, the idea of putting Kevin Love next to a frontcourt bruiser never seemed to be high on the list of priorities.

Find a scoring forward like Michael Beasley to form a dynamic, productive duo? They tried that.

Make sure Ricky Rubio comes over from Spain and starts cashing in on the hype and potential to make him the apotheosis of successful pure point guard play? That’s still a work in progress that could be under construction longer than the city planned.

Making Nikola Pekovic the bulldozer to Love’s wrecking ball may not have been the initial plan, but it has developed over the past three years as Pekovic became a viable option in the paint. When he re-signed with the Wolves for five years and $60 million, new president of basketball operations Flip Saunders seemed to have a vision of how this team would play.

Punishing.

“We envision Pek and Kevin Love being the ‘Bruise Brothers’ and forming one of the best front courts in the NBA for a long time to come,” Saunders said during a news conference this summer to announce the Pekovic re-up.

Wednesday night against a more modern, less conventional New Orleans Pelicans’ attack, the Wolves put that style into effect. They allowed Anthony Davis to chase Love around the perimeter. They took advantage of Ryan Anderson giving up roughly 50 pounds of brute strength to Pekovic in the post. And the Wolves lived at the free-throw line like they were designed to do.

The Wolves shot 35 free throws on the night, 31 of them coming through the first three quarters when the game was pretty much decided. It was the 10th time they attempted at least 30 free throws in a game this season and the eighth time they won such a game. When they get their mail forwarded to the line, they’re hard to beat, and that seems to be the plan.

“Well, it’s kind of the way we want to play,” Rubio said after the 124-112 victory, “Because that means we've been aggressive and we go to attack the rim. We don’t take too many shots from outside when things are going well.

"It’s been our problem when we don’t feel good, we start taking shots that don’t make sense. We don’t get to the free throw line and that allows them to get fast break [opportunities] too. We control the game from the beginning.”

If the Wolves are going to snap roughly a decade of watching the playoffs from their vacation spots, they have to remember their identity: Move the ball and get to the free-throw line. Abuse the competition inside. Let Love take the attention from the defense and then allow Pekovic to control the paint.

Everybody can play off of that and be aggressive.

“It was good for us, plays to our advantage,” Corey Brewer said. “Somebody has to guard Love out on the perimeter and someone has to guard Pek inside, so you have to pick your poison.”

There are still plenty of issues for this Wolves team. The bench needs consistency, the defense needs to protect the rim while keeping with the strategy of not fouling, and the outside shots need to fall when they’re created. But everything starts with bruising the interior and living at the free-throw line. They can still play the modern style of up-tempo and creating open looks, but it starts in the paint.

“Nights like today, when maybe they want to stop Kevin Love, we have another guy like Pek,” Rubio explained, “And he’s strong and if you don’t put a big body on him, [Pekovic is] going to destroy him.”

Kevin Love: better, but different

April, 9, 2012
4/09/12
11:30
AM ET
By Benjamin Polk
ESPN.com
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Kevin Love
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
Kevin Love's more prominent role in Minnesota doesn't come without its challenges.

Turn your attention to Mar. 23 of this year.

Kevin Love has just dropped 51 points on the Oklahoma City Thunder, scoring from just about every spot on the floor, hitting seven of his 11 3-point attempts and dueling with Kevin Durant through four quarters and two overtimes. Two days later he torches the Nuggets for 30 points (on 19 shots) and 21 rebounds. Three days after that he puts 40 and 19 on the Bobcats. He is now fourth in the League in scoring, averaging 26.5 per game. There have been 20 30-and-15 games in the NBA this year; Love has 10 of them; no other player has more than two.

Now remember the Kevin Love of just one year ago and realize how strange this all seems. Remember last season’s most improved player, the somewhat pudgy, no-jumping white dude who somehow managed to outrebound legions of taller, more athletic opponents? He got his points, but he was no one’s idea of an elite scorer. He was a rebounding supernova and an efficient bucket-getter hiding out somewhere in that second tier of NBA stars. We wondered if he was a franchise player worthy of a max contract or simply, despite the eye-popping numbers, a glorified role player, something like Kris Humphries with a sweeter J.

Back then, Love’s conspicuously below-average one-on-one skills prevented him from being considered a legitimate go-to scorer. He was awkward with his back to the basket. A post-up often ended with him throwing up an off-balance hook as he sailed through the lane, and his face-up game wasn’t much prettier. There’s no way a truly great player, many of us thought, could possibly look like that.

Still, there was an undeniable glory to Love’s early performances. We know full well that elite-level rebounding is a sign of unusual athleticism and finely honed skill -- in Love’s case, an immensely strong and well-balanced lower body; precise footwork; quick, powerful hands; and a preternatural anticipation of the ball’s path. And yet seeing Love sow such chaos on the offensive glass with nothing but these understated gifts, repeatedly creating something out of what looked for all the world like nothing, always came as a sweet shock.

This year, though, Love has become something a bit less idiosyncratic: a genuine premier scorer. And he has done this despite, or perhaps because of, that deeply unorthodox offensive game. Strength, effort and craft on the offensive glass have always been among his fundamental assets. But he has turned the basic act of challenging for rebounding position into a volume-scoring weapon, forcing teams to repeatedly foul him rather than surrender easy putbacks. And for a player so lacking in the conventional offensive tools, he has become remarkably savvy at drawing contact as he makes his move toward the basket. He has overwhelmed team after team simply through the grinding process of getting to the line all night long. (See: Dec. 27 in Milwaukee in which Love shot 24 free throws, scoring 32 points on only six made baskets, or Feb. 10 in Dallas in which he went 14-for-14 from the line, scoring 32 on 9-for-18 shooting.)

Let’s also not forget the particular vexations posed by an undersized big man who happens to be an excellent 3-point shooter. In that ridiculously entertaining double-overtime loss to the Thunder, Love -- playing center because of an injury to Nikola Pekovic -- shredded Oklahoma City’s defense with pick-and-pop 3s. Because Kendrick Perkins was terminally unable to challenge Love outside, Oklahoma City was forced to go small, surrendering its size advantage on the inside. From then on, the game was played on the undermanned Wolves’ terms; Love’s outside shot literally changed the complexion of the game.

Love’s game is a strange patchwork, an unprecedented hybrid of modern Euro big man skill and old-school glue-guy hustle. He is equal parts stretch-4 and banger. He is a dominant scorer whose lack of explosiveness routinely results in blown layups and blocked shots. He is a slow-footed, 3-point shooting, 6-foot-8 center who can singlehandedly foul your best big man out of the game or put your team deep into the penalty. Most great scorers are blessed with some obvious, almost supernatural physical gift -- Durant’s length and economy of movement; LeBron’s size and speed -- but Love is just his average-looking self, exploiting the game’s margins on his way to superstardom.

Still, Love’s transformation has been jarring, and not simply in terms of the sheer quantity of points he’s put on the board. He has assumed the attitude of a scorer, the willingness to see every moment of offensive basketball as an opportunity both to attack the D and to explore new possibilities in his game. This season, we’ve seen Love nail step-back jumpers. We’ve seen him coolly drain Tim Duncan-esque, 15-foot, shallow-angle bank shots. We’ve seen up-and-unders, escape dribbles, dynamic sweep-throughs and balanced jump-hooks. It would have been pretty hard to imagine any of this even one year ago. Thanks to a number of factors -- those improved skills, the Wolves’ changed offensive philosophy, an injury epidemic that has sidelined five of the team’s top six players for significant stretches this season -- Love has become Minnesota’s scorer of first and last resort.

This approach has unquestionably yielded some spectacular results. And this is, in many ways, what the undermanned Wolves require. But it’s hard to fight the feeling that something has been lost along the way. Central to Love’s game has always been an incredible, relentless energy, a willingness to pursue every stray ball and to wrestle all comers for position. This tenacity, coupled with his remarkable offensive efficiency -- putbacks, free throws and 3s were his meat and potatoes -- was at the heart not only of his incredible production in 2010-11, but also of the sheer thrill of watching him play.

Love certainly remains a great rebounder. He’s still averaging 13.8 boards per game, after all, and there are still many moments in which we see him maneuver himself between two bigger, springier defenders and battle to pull down an impossible one-handed board. But that kind of vibrant effort is no longer a constant. He is no longer quite so feverishly disruptive of opponents’ defensive rebounding schemes.

What’s more, his efficiency numbers -- rebounding rate, true shooting percentage, 3-point percentage, all essential to what made him great -- are down from last season. A great portion of this drop-off is explained by the simple fact that Love’s job is extraordinarily exhausting. None of the league’s top scorers are asked to rebound as heavily as Love; none of the top rebounders carry as great a share of their team’s offensive burden. Love can no longer afford to expend such radiant energy every time a shot goes up. He is forced to ration his effort judiciously across the many minutes he is asked to play and the many responsibilities he is asked to shoulder.

But much of Love’s declining efficiency stems from the kinds of shots that he’s now taking. He has accepted the venerable prerogatives of the No. 1 option: the right to demand the ball in isolation; the right to shoot contested, off-the-dribble midrange jumpers; the right to stare down his defender, vision tunneling as seconds tick off the clock and teammates stand and watch. These things can be magnificent and valuable, but they’re a far cry from the Kevin Love we once knew.

We’re all enchanted by the mythology of the high-volume scorer. We love to see players enter that altered state of consciousness in which the game is reduced to the simplicity of an attacker, his defender and the dance the two of them perform together. But Kevin Love -- the superstar role player, the sweet-shooting banger -- complicates this mythology. A great portion of his charm and effectiveness lies in the contradictions and dissonances in his game, the strange, unprecedented way he plays. Do we really want him to accede to the conventions of superstardom? Do we lose something essential when a measure of that offbeat magic is drained away?

Defense in decline since Rubio's injury

April, 5, 2012
4/05/12
11:21
AM ET
By Ryan Feldman, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
Ever since point guard Ricky Rubio was lost for the season with a torn ACL on March 9, the Minnesota Timberwolves have struggled. They were 21-20 when he got hurt and are 4-11 since then, and much of the Timberwolves’ struggles are on the defensive end.
Ricky Rubio
Rubio

Rubio is not the quickest player, but his length and size helped cover a lot of ground. Without Rubio -- who ranks third in the league in steals per game (2.22) -- the Timberwolves have had to rely more on smaller guards like J.J. Barea (6-0) and Luke Ridnour (6-2), both of whom rank in the bottom 40 percent in points per play allowed.

The Timberwolves are fine offensively without Rubio. In fact, they've scored two more points per 100 possessions with Rubio off the floor. Defensively they've allowed seven more points per 100 possessions without him and are allowing 11 more points per game.

Minnesota’s opponents have scored 100 or more points in nine of the last 15 games after scoring at least 100 in 17 of 41 games that Rubio played.

But how are opponents scoring so much more lately?

Without Rubio on the court this season, Minnesota’s opponents are scoring 22 percent more fast-break points, 11 percent more second-chance points and 4 percent more points in the paint.

However, with Rubio not on the court at all anymore, those numbers have been amplified even more over the last 15 games. Minnesota’s opponents are scoring 30 percent more fast-break points, 14 percent more second-chance points and 14 percent more points in the paint.

Some of those increased easy baskets -- fast breaks, second-chance points, points in the paint -- can be attributed to Nikola Pekovic missing eight of the last 15 games with an ankle injury. But more of it can be attributed to Rubio's injury; the Timberwolves have had trouble stopping opposing guards from penetrating and dishing.

Over the last 15 games, opposing guards have an assist-to-turnover ratio better than three-to-one. In the 15 games before Rubio’s injury, that ratio was less than two-to-one.

On March 12, the Phoenix Suns guards combined for 74 points, 16 assists and two turnovers. On April 2 against the Sacramento Kings, Isaiah Thomas had 17 points, five assists and no turnovers.

In Wednesday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors, guard Charles Jenkins had 19 points, seven assists and two turnovers as Golden State erased a 20-point deficit with 58 second-half points.

Not having Rubio also impacts the Timberwolves on the boards. He averaged 4.2 rebounds per game, which ranks 10th among guards.

The Timberwolves were strong playoff contenders before Rubio’s injury. Now, they're in last place in the Northwest Division, five games out of the playoffs with 10 games left to play.

Pierce heads impressive night of stat feats

February, 8, 2012
2/08/12
2:23
AM ET
By Mark Simon, ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
It wasn’t the best of days as far as shooting the basketball, but it was a milestone effort for Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce.

On a night in which he went 6-for-18 from the field and 2-for-10 from 3-point range, Pierce passed Larry Bird into second place on the Celtics' all-time scoring list in a win over the Charlotte Bobcats. Pierce now has 21,797 career points, trailing only John Havlicek on the team's all-time scoring list.

The best thing Pierce could say about his individual performance was that when he was on the floor, the Celtics outscored the Bobcats by 26 points in his 37 minutes.

That was due partly to his nine assists and eight rebounds, a plateau combination he hit for the second time this season.

Pierce is in a little bit of a shooting funk, but he's made up for it with his ballhandling and his ability to get to the free throw line. He has 34 assists and nine turnovers in his last five games.

Take the Timberwolves Seriously
The Minnesota Timberwolves are emerging as one of the surprise stories in the NBA this season. Recently, the player to emerge with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio has been center Nikola Pekovic.
Nikola Pekovic
Pekovic
The Timberwolves improved to 13-12 with a win over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. It's the first time they've surpassed the .500 mark at least 25 games into a season since 2006-07. No players on that team are on this one.

Rubio, who tied a career high with 14 assists in this win, has gotten most of the headlines, with the Timberwolves now 10-5 when he starts.

But Pekovic, who scored 23 points and had 10 rebounds in 37 minutes in Tuesday’s victory, is averaging 18.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in his last four games, three of which are Timberwolves wins.

Pekovic was able to use his post-up game to his advantage on Tuesday, scoring six of his nine hoops on post-up plays. He entered the day averaging only one post-up basket per 26 minutes this season.

Rubio now has 13 games with at least 10 assists this season. That ties Steve Nash for the most 10-assist games in the NBA this season.

The Timberwolves won despite matching their season low for points in a game, with 86. They were averaging 105.6 points in their previous five games.

Wading Through
Dwyane Wade was 7-for-10 from inside five feet in the Miami Heat’s win Tuesday night, scoring 14 of his game-high 26 points on those shots.

Wade had struggled in his six games since returning from an ankle injury, making 55 percent of his shots inside five feet, averaging four baskets per game. Prior to the injury, he was a 67 percent shooter from in-close.

Statistical Feats of the Night
Three players put up impressive statistical tallies in defeat.

Monta Ellis scored a career-high 48 points for the Golden State Warriors in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Had he scored two more points, he would have had the 131st game of at least 50 points in franchise history. Of those, 105 were by Wilt Chamberlain.

Ellis’ teammate, David Lee, recorded his second career triple-double (the first came against the Warriors). Lee was the fifth player to record a triple-double this season. The others are Kemba Walker, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry, and Andre Iguodala

Also, Derrick Brown of the Charlotte Bobcats went 10-for-10 from the field in the loss to the Celtics.
Derrick Brown
Brown
That's the most field goals made without a miss in a single game by a Bobcats player in franchise history.

Jake Voskuhl held the previous Bobcats record for most field goals made without a miss in a single game. He was 6-for-6 against the Washington Wizards on April 3, 2007.

The last player in the NBA to go at least 10-for-10 from the field was Pau Gasol on November 21, 2010, when he went 10-for-10 in a win against the Warriors.

Plus-Minus Note of the Night
Udonis Haslem tied a career-high by finishing with a plus-27 in the Miami Heat’s win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

All four Heat reserves finished with a positive plus-minus in a game in which Miami didn’t pull away until the fourth quarter, when it outscored the Cavaliers by 10. Haslem played 11 minutes in the final period. Mike Miller (plus-25) played all 12.

Wednesday Bullets

July, 28, 2010
7/28/10
11:17
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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