Timberwolves: ‘We’re all covering each other’s back’

Published 8:13am Thursday, November 22, 2012

ST. PAUL  — Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman knows it could be worse.

With injuries dominating the Wolves’ 5-4 start, self-pity could have set in among the players. Morale might suffer. Fatigue would consume the healthy players and affect concentration. Eventually, players would be wondering who’s next to go down.

Fortunately for Adelman, he hasn’t had to deal with that atmosphere during a difficult first three weeks of the season for the Wolves. In fact, the longtime coach praised his players for not caving in to the team’s overwhelming injury situation.

“You couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to go through this with,” Adelman said. “They’re busting their tails, and they don’t put their heads down. They’re trying to do what’s right.”

The Wolves have had nine players available in their past two games. They had 10 Wednesday night, against Denver at the Target Center with the return of starting center Nikola Pekovic, who missed two games because of a sprained left ankle.

While Pekovic and other key players have been sidelined, the Wolves have remained above .500 because of improved defense. They lead the NBA in blocked shots (8.0), rank third in field-goal percentage defense (42.4 percent) and are fourth in points allowed (90.4).

These are not the kinds of numbers an injury-plagued team is expected to generate. The team’s performance under tough circumstances prompted Adelman to tip his hat to Andrei Kirilenko, Dante Cunningham, Derrick Williams, Luke Ridnour, Malcolm Lee, Alexey Shved, Greg Stiemsma and Lou Amundson.

They will get help soon enough from newcomer Josh Howard, who will get considerable playing time once he improves his conditioning and learns Adelman’s system.

“We’re all covering each other’s back,” Williams said of the Wolves’ defense. “Last year, we didn’t have enough of that. A guy would drive by somebody, and nobody would be there to step up. It’s been an all-around effort this year.”

Adelman has not been able to do as much offensively as he would like because of the injuries. He has had to make adjustments each time he’s lost a player, which has prevented him from adding plays or options to his corner offense.

Adelman has had to simplify things, but the Wolves have won more games than expected without Kevin Love (broken right hand), Ricky Rubio (torn left knee ligaments), Brandon Roy (knee surgery), J.J. Barea (sprained left foot) and Chase Budinger (knee surgery).

“It’s been hard,” Adelman said. “You have a plan, but you’re adjusting all the time. We have to maintain until we get these other guys back.”

A lot of the guys playing now were going to be playing around Kevin and Ricky. Now we’re asking them to do a lot more. We know when we get Kevin and Ricky back, and everybody else, we’re going to be better.”

If Love and Rubio remain on schedule, the Wolves could have them back by mid-December. Both have started doing limited work with the team in practice.

In anticipation of Love and Rubio’s return, Adelman is considering a gradual implementation of more plays and options from his playbook, things he would run when Love and Rubio are on the floor. The idea is to familiarize the players on the court now with situations before Love and Rubio return.

Six of the Wolves’ healthy players did not play with Love and Rubio last season: Kirilenko, Howard, Amundson, Cunningham, Shved and Stiemsma.

“We might put some things in during timeouts in games,” Adelman said. “We have to get guys used to certain sets when the cavalry comes back. When Kevin and Ricky come back, we want to be able to move right into things.”

At the moment, the Wolves have had success with a limited approach. They were 5-20 last season after losing Rubio to a season-ending knee injury. The lack of production from the bench after Rubio went down was one of Adelman’s biggest complaints. Love missed the final seven games with a concussion.

“Guys came in prepared this year,” Ridnour said. “There’s a belief on this team that no matter who’s playing, we’re going to come out and compete. Everybody is playing hard.”