By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
December 14, 2012

Anthony Davis made his much-anticipated return to the New Orleans Hornets’ lineup this week. The Minnesota Timberwolves are hoping they can soon say the same for phenom point guard Ricky Rubio.

After an injury-plagued early portion of the 2012-13 regular season, the Hornets and Timberwolves are looking forward to competing in the Western Conference while being closer to full strength roster-wise. Rubio is not expected to play Friday, but ESPN 1500 AM radio in Minneapolis has reported that he will do so Saturday vs. Dallas.

In the absence of Davis (stress reaction in left ankle), New Orleans went just 3-10 in games played between Nov. 3 and Dec. 10, clearly missing his scoring (average of 15.0 points, second-best on the Hornets), rebounding (team-leading 7.8 average) and shot-blocking (team-leading 2.13 average). Over his first eight appearances of the season, Davis also was off to an excellent shooting start from both the field (48.9 percent) and the foul line (85.0 percent).

The Hornets probably won’t get much sympathy from the Timberwolves about not having key players available early in ’12-13 due to injury. Not only did Rubio (torn ACL in left knee) miss the first 19 games for the Timberwolves, but All-Star power forward Kevin Love (broken right shooting hand) also was sidelined for the initial nine. Love made his welcomed return to action the day before Thanksgiving, but understandably is not 100 percent yet, with his hand injury appearing to still hamper him. One of the best perimeter shooters among big men in the NBA, Love has produced career-lows in shooting percentages while battling through the injury. He initially wasn’t expected to be back until mid-December, but managed to accelerate his recovery.

Intriguing matchup: Center, Robin Lopez vs. Nikola Pekovic
As a 7-footer who checks in at 255 pounds, Lopez doesn’t often encounter men larger than him in the paint, but the massive Pekovic is one such matchup. Pekovic, a native of Montenegro, is listed as 6-foot-11, 290 pounds, making him a near-immovable presence under the basket. Pekovic made impressive improvements as a player last season, upping his scoring average from 5.5 to 13.9 points. Lopez has similarly developed for the Hornets in 2012-13, going from 5.4 to 11.9 in that category.

Overview
Under the circumstances, the Timberwolves can’t be too displeased with their 10-9 start to the regular season, given the rampant injuries that have left them shorthanded throughout 2012-13. In addition to the well-documented absences of point guard Ricky Rubio and power forward Kevin Love, the Wolves also have missed starting shooting guard Brandon Roy and bench catalyst Chase Budinger in recent weeks. Eleven different Minnesota players have already started at least one game due to the widespread bad luck, including a few backups who weren’t expected to make a major impact this season. The Timberwolves have not made the playoffs since 2004, but with an eventual clean bill of health, they figure to be a viable contender to end their lengthy postseason drought.

What’s new
Minnesota has eight new players on this season’s squad, with the most prominent move being the addition of Andrei Kirilenko at small forward. The Wolves have done a commendable job of improving their depth, allowing them to withstand the unenviable situation of playing without critical pieces. Off the bench, Russian guard Alexey Shved has been a reliable crunch-time performer, while the likes of Dante Cunningham, Josh Howard and Greg Stiemsma have provided defensive toughness and intensity.

Timberwolves star
Love possesses one of the most diverse and impressive skill sets of any NBA player. The league’s leading rebounder in 2010-11, he’s a nightly threat to pull down double-digit boards, as he did in each of his first nine appearances this season. Despite being 6-foot-10, 260 pounds, Love also has a feathery shooting touch. The UCLA product won the 2012 NBA three-point shootout at All-Star weekend in Orlando.
On the rise
Kirilenko had become somewhat of a forgotten name in basketball circles after spending the 2011-12 NBA season playing in his native Russia, but the Minnesota free-agent signee has quickly reminded people why he was a coveted player this summer. The multi-dimensional forward is the Wolves’ third-leading scorer and has made instrumental contributions on defense, as a disruptive, rangy presence and shot-blocker.

X-factor
Many NBA teams would fall apart without their No. 1 floor leader, but the Timberwolves possess extraordinary depth at point guard behind Rubio. The clever and underrated Luke Ridnour has started in Rubio’s absence, while Shved and J.J. Barea have often changed the momentum for Minnesota in games. Only a rookie, Shved has already gained a reputation for closing victories in the fourth quarter with his shooting and passing.

On the sideline
It’s no coincidence that over the past 25 years, the best stretches of success for Portland and Sacramento were both overseen by Rick Adelman. Now in his second season as Minnesota’s bench boss, Adelman appeared on his way to guiding the Timberwolves back to prominence a year ago, before injuries intervened. Adelman’s track record of success bodes well for a team that had been begging for stability prior to his arrival.

Did you know?
The Timberwolves joined the NBA in 1989-90, one year after the Hornets began play as an expansion franchise.


Players the Timberwolves want shooting free throws in a close game… If the Timberwolves need a three-pointer, three of their best options are…
Name
Career FT percentage (through Dec. 10)
Luke
Ridnour
86.5
Shot over 90 percent during the 2009-10 season.
Kevin
Love
81.4
Off to slow start while recovering from broken hand.
J.J.
Barea
80.5
Quick and wiry strong, drives into paint frequently.
Name
Career three-point percentage (through Dec. 10)
Kevin
Love
35.9
Top threat for Minnesota team ranked last (30.1) in NBA.
Luke
Ridnour
35.6
Previously played for SuperSonics, Bucks.
J.J.
Barea
35.4
Had key role on Mavericks’ 2011 NBA title-winning team.


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