Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 3/31/12
MINNEAPOLIS Dressed in street clothes on the Timberwolves' bench, Nikola Pekovic must be in pain. There's the sharp hurt of the bone spurs in his right ankle, but there's also a duller ache, the pain that comes with sitting and watching, being unable to stop his team from losing. Pekovic never fell. He was never powerless to get up off the court, and the drama of his injury is far less than Ricky Rubio's ACL tear. Rubio's pain was searing and instant, Pekovic's nagging and vague. The same goes for J.J. Barea and Michael Beasley, who are missing time with a thigh contusion and a sprained big toe, respectively. They're at the Target Center, sometimes practicing, sometimes shooting, but never quite ready. And right now, that might be worse. At least Rubio knows what he's facing. He's out for the rest of the season after having surgery on his left knee on March 21. There will be rehab, months of it, and no doubt more pain, but the worst is most likely over, and his path to recovery is one that countless players have gone through before. For Pekovic, and to some extent Barea and Beasley, the final weeks of the season are so much more vague, and with each game they sit, negotiating their injuries becomes ever more complex. It's not that these injuries are unexpected. With the compressed schedule of a lockout season, it's easy to predict that the strain of back-to-backs and travel will plague teams more acutely. Injuries like Rubio's, caused by sharp movement and joints bending in ways they never should, are the downfalls of sports that happen regardless of schedule and exhaustion. These lockout injuries, as one might call them, are harder to work with, and recovery has so little to do with formulas and timelines. It has more to do with pain tolerance and personality, with commitment and even the team's long-term hopes. Take Beasley. He's walking around the Target Center on game nights, dressed in his sweats and even taking shots. Same with Barea, and even sometimes Pekovic. With the glimpses of shootarounds and practices available to the public, they can appear just fine, a little bit sweaty and in the same uniforms as their healthy teammates. Sometimes they're on the brink of fine, teetering on the edge of healthy, but put them in too early, and all the days of rehab and resting are for naught. And with each game that passes, what to do with these injured players changes. Beasley seems likely to return; sore big toes aren't something that can sideline a career, really. Same with Barea, but for the guard who's battled injuries all season, the narrative has changed. Before, it was that he'd sit out a few more days to get fully ready he'd learned his less after trying to return prematurely earlier in the season. Now, though, with 13 games remaining, there's another thought, a final sentence tacked on to discussion of his recovery: I've just got to get through this year, work out hard over the summer and get ready for next year, he said Friday. Get through this year? That's new. So is discussion of the summer, of next season. But with 13 games remaining and the Timberwolves 3.5 games out of the eighth Western Conference playoff spot, next year is appearing on the radar sooner than the team might like. It's not that the Timberwolves don't still have a shot, but it would be irresponsible not to consider the longer-term pros and cons of rehabbing these players and getting them back into games at the end of the season. Even as long ago as last week, Pekovic began to discuss the possibility of offseason ankle surgery. Back then, he talked about returning to the lineup and finishing out the season, but with each game he misses, he'll be more out of shape when he does return. It's been six games and almost two weeks since he took the court, eight days since Barea appeared in a game. Neither will be sharp the moment he returns, and the closer it gets to April 26, the more tempting it might be for the team to cut its losses and prevent further injuries and damage. Timberwolves' coach Rick Adelman doesn't have the luxury that Boston's Doc Rivers has, of an extended time frame afforded by a nearly certain playoff spot. On Friday, Rivers talked about how he's hoping to have Mickael Pietrus, who's suffering from concussions, back for the playoffs. The team should make it that far, and it can wait for Pietrus until it really needs him. Comparatively, the Timberwolves are in a bind. Four of their top six scorers are out, one for the rest of the season. Beasley and Barea seem like they should be able to return, and the verdict on Pekovic is more vague. But this team needs to make a push now if it wants to steal that final playoff spot, and there's no luxury of holding Pekovic, Beasley and Barea out until the postseason. If they're going to keep playing into May, the Timberwolves are going to need those three, and it's become a question of whether the short-term boost outweighs the long-term damage. There's no right answer when it comes to these injuries, and Adelman and his staff may have little say in when the players return. If they're not ready, still in pain and unable to run, move, jump that's the easy scenario. Hold them out. It's when they're almost there, maybe ready, that things will get interesting. The season may depend on the health of Pekovic, Barea and Beasley, but in the end, it might be necessary to look past this one year. That's a tough call to make, and it's hard to envy the coaches and staff who will have to decide.Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.
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