MINNEAPOLIS — There was a time, not too many games ago, when a look at the Timberwolves bench suggested some of the team had forgotten to show up. For coach Rick Adelman, assembling a starting five — much less plotting out an effective rotation — was an ever-changing process that first required a consultation with the training staff.
With Kevin Love and Chase Budinger's return still at least a month away, fans won't know the true potential of this team until late in the season, if at all. But, in the wake of Saturday's much-needed blowout of New Orleans at Target Center, which ended a six-game losing streak, it appears Adelman might be getting to the point where he has a rotation he can stick with.
Both guard Alexey Shved and center Nikola Pekovic played in their third game since missing five in a row because of injuries, and both have quickly gotten back up to speed. Meanwhile, point guard Ricky Rubio continues to make strides each game, getting more confident and aggressive.
It has allowed Adelman to find workable combinations and return players to roles in which they can thrive.
“We've had so many players in and out of the lineup this year I think it's always an adjustment when people come back,” guard Luke Ridnour said. ”But we're getting there. Hopefully we can have people healthy here, and get a rhythm going for the whole team.“
And that starts with the guards. Rubio missed the early part of the season while recovering from knee surgery and has been improving by degrees since. Ridnour has been the only player to play in every game for the Wolves, while J.J. Barea and Shved have both missed time because of injuries.
But now Adelman has a rotation he likes. While Ridnour will give away size to some off-guards he has to cover — witness his matchup with Kobe Bryant on Friday — Adelman likes the combination of Rubio and Ridnour in the starting lineup with Shved and Barea off the bench.
That said, he's still looking to tweak things.
”I like Alexey and J.J. on the floor together,“ Adelman said after Saturday's game. ”There are times, though, when we need to balance the ball handling. Luke has to handle it some, not always Ricky. And Alexey has to handle it, especially, because J.J. is one of our best three-point shooters. Alexey finds people. We need to get more balance there. Sometimes we get locked up where J.J. is bringing it up all the time. He does a good job trying to get the ball to Alexey, but I think we can do it the other way.”
Saturday, because of the nature of the game, all 12 healthy Wolves scored. But it showed the options Adelman has. If the Wolves can keep this group healthy, Adelman said he believes the team can compete.
Pekovic's return to the starting lineup allows Dante Cunningham to come off the bench, where he appears very comfortable with Shved and Barea.
The signings of Mickael Gelabale and Chris Johnson to consecutive 10-day contracts also have given Adelman more options. Gelabale is a defensive option against bigger guards, and Johnson has been good at bringing energy and defending the basket.
Whether this will translate into a push back into the Western Conference playoff picture is debatable. But perhaps, for a stretch, the players can get used to the teammates they're on the court with.
“It helps when we have more bodies on the bench and everybody can play every night,” Rubio said. “We can find our rhythm, which we couldn't do the last three or four weeks. It wasn't because we didn't want to, it was because we had a lot of players hurt. But we don't want to look for excuses, we want to win games.”
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