Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 3/21/12
It's been just months since few knew his name, weeks since he became an established starter, known for something other than his bulk and his beard. But that's easy to forget on nights like Wednesday, when Nikola Pekovic's absence loomed large for the Timberwolves. The starting center, who has been battling foot and ankle issues recently, flew back to Minneapolis on Wednesday to rehab his injuries and will miss the final two games of the road trip. His absence compounded a poor showing from the Timberwolves in San Antonio, as they lost to the Spurs, 116-100. "We're playing without a center, so it's really tough to win like that," J.J. Barea said.What's most amazing about Pekovic's absence is that it matters. Here's a player who was injured to start the season and didn't even play much upon returning. No one really knew who he was, what he was capable of, and it took an injury to Darko Milicic to get the 26-year-old into the starting lineup.It was a happy accident. No one could have planned or predicted it, but in the two months since Pekovic has begun to see significant playing time, he's altered the face of the Timberwolves, providing a big presence inside for the first time in recent memory. He was exactly what the team needed, averaging 19.3 points and 9.2 rebounds in his past six games, and he's proving difficult to replace.After missing two games in early March against the Clippers and Trail Blazers and Sunday's loss to Sacramento, Pekovic saw limited time on Monday. He was pulled from the game after just 11 minutes and six points, and now's he's back in Minneapolis, leaving the team with few options at center.On Wednesday, Derrick Williams got the start in Pekovic's place, and he and Anthony Tolliver split the center's minutes. For Williams, the start played out like nearly any other game; he finished with 37 minutes and nine points. Tolliver, though, has averaged just 16 minutes this season 12.2 in March so the increased time is somewhat of an opportunity, a chance few could have foreseen earlier this season."They did okay," Timberwolves' coach Rick Adelman said. "Derrick, he's got to stay with it. He's got to figure out how to be more aggressive. I thought Anthony played well against Golden State. He played well tonight, too. We just need guys to step up until we find out what's going on."As unbelievable as Pekovic becoming a dominant center might have seemed in January, imagining Milicic being benched in favor of Williams and Tolliver would have been an even bigger stretch. Despite underwhelming performances, he seemed like a lock in the lineup, but Adelman has lost his patience with Milicic in recent weeks. Before Wednesday's loss, Adelman said that Milcic hasn't done anything to earn his coach's faith, and he's suffering from conditioning issues that he doesn't seem to be resolving. The solution? Milicic spent Wednesday on the bench, never once stepping onto the court.It's hard to blame Pekovic's absence for the loss, which resulted from a lagging defense and an impressive performance from the Spurs' offense. But it made a difference, no doubt. The Timberwolves at full strength with Pekovic and Ricky Rubio were able to defeat San Antonio twice earlier in the season, but on Wednesday they proved unable to beat the Spurs in San Antonio, where Minnesota hasn't won since Jan. 14, 2004."They really jumped on us at the start of the game and the start of the third quarter," Adelman said. "They were very alive and very active They did everything."Kevin Love missed a double-double on Wednesday, scoring 17 points and finishing with 12 rebounds. Barea came off the bench to lead the team in scoring, with 18 points, and the bench combined for 53 points. The 41 team assists were a promising statistic with Rubio's absence, and it was Tolliver who best compensated for Pekovic's scoring, outperforming Williams with 16 points to the rookie's nine.After the loss, Adelman focused less on what his team failed to do and more on how fresh and energetic the Spurs were. For a team that's been criticized for its age, the Spurs looked anything but tired on Wednesday after three days off. Tim Duncan finished with 21 points, leading his team to its fourth-highest scoring night of the season."We just didn't have it tonight like they did," Adelman said. "They were very fresh."The coach was back to his same mantra on Wednesday, one that must be getting more and more tired as the season progresses. Without Pekovic, there's an opportunity for players to step up, and they need to. It's what he always says, a sort of implied frustration that because he must keep repeating it, something must not be going right. Adelman isn't resigned yet, but he's resolute, and with each repetition of that speech, a winning record slips further away from his team.Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.
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