Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 2/4/13
MINNEAPOLIS It's in part thanks to the Timberwolves that Nicolas Batum got his four-year, 45 million deal this offseason, a contract that many assumed to be more than what the small forward was worth. It was the result of a bidding war between the Timberwolves and Trail Blazers, and Portland eventually won, matching Minnesota's offer for the restricted free agent. Since signing, Batum has improved his statistics across the board from last season, and he's posting the best numbers of his five-year career. "A little bit, yeah," Batum said when asked if he was surprising himself with his play. "I knew I could do it, but not at this point. When I fix a goal to be a 15-5-5 (guy) this year, people laugh at me. But now I reach this goal right now." His 15.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game this season are all career highs; in fact, Batum has never finished a season averaging more than 1.5 assists, making that jump perhaps the most noticeable. He's playing up to his contract, no doubt, and Batum still insists that this summer's bidding war was more than just an attempt to drive up his price. "I was interested by the Wolves," Batum said. "The way they played last year, it was nice. The way they played last year, a lot of people wanted to be there and play with them. Rubio was good. Kevin Love was an All-Star, and Pekovic, and all those guys, Coach Adelman, I like that coach." "What I learned this summer, with the contract, the new coach we have (Terry Stotts), I feel like it's a new project here also for us. The coach really lets me play like I want to play. That will be everything." He's not the only one over-performing. The Trail Blazers, predicted to be lodged in the bottom half of the West, are 24-23 going into Monday's game, just one game out of the eighth seed in the conference. They're doing it on the backs of Batum, rookie point guard Damian Lillard (whom Batum predicted will be rookie of the year), All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, J.J. Hickson and Wesley Matthews, who is a game-time decision for Monday's game with an injured ankle. "We didn't have a lot of pressure on us," Batum said. "Nobody expects something from us this year. When you watch at the beginning of the season, people say, I don't know if they're going to win 20 games this year. We have 24 (at the beginning of) February." Saturday's close to perfect win: Coming off their best win of the season Saturday, the Timberwolves will look for more of the same Monday, the fourth game of their six-game homestand. Even coming close to replicating what they did two days ago against New Orleans will be tough for Minnesota; the team set season highs in victory margin (29), points (111) and field goal percentage (.584). Dante Cunningham's 9-of-9 shooting performance went a long way towards boosting his team's offensive numbers. It was also the most field goals made in a game without a miss in franchise history, breaking the 8-of-8 mark that Trenton Hassell set on Nov. 4, 2004 against Denver. Hassell, though, missed two free throws in his performance. Cunningham had actually been perfect from the field once this season before Saturday, going 5-of-5 against Denver on Dec. 12. (He missed two free throws that night, though, and he didn't attempt any on Saturday.) Cunningham said that he didn't realize he'd been perfect from the field until he came out of the game near the end of the fourth quarter. "It was definitely a good feeling," he said. "The Ravens won, too, so I was definitely feeling even better about the week." The Gela-Batum combination: That's the name the Portland small forward gives to his on-court relationship with Mickael Gelabale, whom he plays with on the French national team. David Kahn actually spoke to Batum about Gelabale before the team signed him to a 10-day contract in January, and Batum is a big fan of his countryman. "He can stay in this league," Batum said. "He's way better than a couple guys in this league." Batum also pointed out a great trick of the French language. Gelabale, which is pronounced jell-uh-ball, phonetically sounds like "j'ai la balle," which in French means "I have the ball." (Disclaimer: I took 15 years of French and this never occurred to me on my own. Thank you, Nicolas Batum.) Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.
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