Sans Pekovic, Wolves Face Big Challenge Against Memphis

Sans Pekovic, Wolves Face Big Challenge Against Memphis

Memphis is finally healthy and on a roll, and they're looking like last year's playoff team with Marc Gasol (left) and Zach Randolph (right) up front. The Wolves have a big task ahead of them slowing down those two without Nikola Pekovic. (Photo credit: Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images)

When healthy, there are few teams that match up with the side-by-side bigs presence that the Timberwolves and Grizzlies possess. Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic average 43.0 points and 22.0 rebounds combined each game, while Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are combining for 31.0 points and 17.1 boards a night this season. In a league dominated by perimeter scoring and high-flying wings, the Grizzlies and Wolves are somewhat throwbacks to the days of dominating front courts.

It’s too bad that neither team has been full healthy when they’ve faced each other this season, and that will continue on Friday.

The Wolves will be without Pekovic when they host Memphis at Target Center (7 p.m. on Fox Sports North and 830 WCCO-AM), meaning Minnesota will need to find a way to combat the Grizzlies’ newfound health up front. Gasol missed 24 games this season due to a sprained MCL in his left knee—including the Wolves’ 101-93 victory in Memphis on Dec. 15. This will be the second meeting between the two squads, and in both instances one of the key bigs will not be suited up.

Last time, Minnesota fought hard to snap its 11-game losing streak to Memphis despite the Gasol-less Grizzlies holding a statistical edge inside. Memphis outscored Minnesota 50-38 in the paint, held a 47-44 advantage on the glass and won the second-chance points battle 14-6.

Yet the difference was Pekovic late. He has 12 fourth-quarter points and took the lead when Memphis put its focus on containing Love down the stretch. Pekovic scored half of Minnesota’s fourth quarter points, helping the Wolves bruise their way to an eight-point win. His 19 points, coupled with Love’s 30 and J.J. Barea’s 15, paved the way to the win.

This time around, the Wolves will be missing Pekovic up front while Gasol—the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year—will be back on the court. And if there was a tough time to catch Memphis, this would be it. The Grizzlies are 9-1 in their last 10 and 7-1 since Gasol’s return. That stretch includes wins over Oklahoma City, Portland and two against Houston.

Without Gasol, the Grizzlies were 10-14. With him, they’re 14-6. How do the Wolves combat having Gasol and Randolph up front?

“Big boys. Big, big boys. Capital B,” center Ronny Turiaf said. “You know, you’ve just got to do your best. You can’t reinvent the wheel overnight, so it’s just a matter of everybody just stepping into the table to try to do whatever they can. Everybody’s just got to step in and do their part. Whether it’s playing a couple minutes or doing a little bit more, everybody has to step to the plate because we know those guys are All-Stars and we know what those guys can do.”

Turiaf is the type of player well-suited for picking up minutes with a starter like Pekovic misses time. He’s got the intensity, the do-whatever-it-takes attitude that helped gain himself a reputation around the league as a valued teammate. It’s part of the reason why he’s been on six playoff teams in eight years. He had a big-time game in Chicago when Pekovic left due to injury on Monday, scoring 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting and adding seven boards in 32 minutes. And defensively, he values protecting the rim and being in the right place at the right time.

He’ll be a big part of Minnesota’s plans, right next to love, in handling Gasol and Randolph. So will rookie center Gorgui Dieng and veteran forward Dante Cunningham when the Wolves elect to play small with Love at the 5.

“We just need our depth,” Love said. “And with Ronny and G and DC, just different guys need to step up and rebound, hit the boards, play physical. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”

Coach Rick Adelman said Memphis is looking like the Grizzlies team that went to the Western Conference Finals last year. It took some time given the coaching change from Lionel Hollins to Dave Joerger and the Gasol injury, but this Grizzlies team is back in form. He said it’s important to understand offensively that with those two bigs up front, ball movement is key.

“The biggest thing with Memphis always when we play them is you’ve got to move the ball side to side,” Adelman said. “Those two guys are in there, and you’re not going to get away with anything. They’ve got a really good defensive team. If we don’t play well offensively, ball hopping, we’re going to have a hard time with them.”

Yet the Wolves enter with confidence of their own. They’ve won five of six, and in that span they’ve won at home, they’ve won on the road, they’ve won a shootout in Golden State and they’ve won an ugly shooting battle against New Orleans. Call any of those games what you will, but call them victories. And that’s what matters.

On Friday night, the Wolves will enter two games back of Dallas’ eight spot with a 23-22 record. Memphis will enter 24-20, just ½ game out of the eighth spot. The Wolves understand it’s a one game at a time approach, but there is weight involved when it comes to these circumstances.

And being able to earn a win against this Grizzlies team with Pekovic out of the lineup would be a big deal at this point in the season.

“Just like us, when they’re healthy they’re one of the best front courts in the league,” guard Kevin Martin said. “We have to bring it Friday night defensively, because they will. That’s the makeup of their team—to pound inside. We have to be ready.”

For the Wolves, part of the equation is belief. Turiaf said this Wolves team has been through adversity and learned from it—that’s one reason why they pulled out Wednesday’s win against New Orleans. Now, they need to channel that and believe once again they will be the best team on Friday night. One game at a time.

“We’re finding we can win these games,” Adelman said. “But it has to take effort every night. I think the team feels a lot better about everything, but you can’t stop here. Memphis is one of those games that we have not won, you know? We’ve lost to Phoenix, and you go back over the thing, these are the games we can’t get over the hump on. We’ll try to do it Friday.”

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