They quickly found out that rough and tumble is just how Nikola Pekovic likes it.
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Pekovic had 27 points and tied a career high with 18 rebounds to power the Timberwolves to a 94-87 victory over the 76ers on Wednesday night.
""If you play physical with Pek, you're in trouble because he hits the weight room," Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio said. "His arm is as big as my head."
Derrick Williams had 17 points and eight rebounds and Andrei Kirilenko added 15 points and five assists in his return from a thigh injury for the Timberwolves, who finally figured out how to close one out for their fourth win in the last 20 games.
Evan Turner scored 17 points and Jrue Holiday scored 16 after making his All-Star debut on Sunday for the 76ers, who couldn't come up with an answer for Pekovic in the paint in a game that featured 76 combined free throw attempts and 53 fouls. Philadelphia has lost seven straight road games and has won just six times away from home all season, the third fewest wins in the NBA.
"We played terribly," Philadelphia coach Doug Collins said. "I don't know what else to say. It was terrible. No energy, no life at all. It was terrible. I can't candy-coat it any more than that. The only thing we did in the second half was compete. We didn't play well, we just played harder."
The Timberwolves never trailed, thanks in large part to Pekovic bulldozing his way through the Sixers big men. He dominated Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen, throwing an array of jump hooks, baseline spins and dunks at a Philadelphia front line that wanted no part of the hulking Montenegrin.
"They were trying to battle me," Pekovic said. "But we got a few shots to go in the first quarter and gained confidence."
The Timberwolves led by as many as 19 points in the first half against a lifeless Sixers team that watched Holiday get into early foul trouble and Turner score just two points in the first 24 minutes. An exasperated Collins tried to send a message to start the second half, sending Kwame Brown and Damien Wilkins out in place of Hawes and Allen.
"He's a beast," Hawes said. "The way they run their system, they do a great job getting their people the ball where they want them to get the ball and if you take away one thing, they know how to exploit it."
Turner got going with 14 points in the third quarter and Philadelphia started to gradually chip away at the lead, pulling to 87-83 with 2:30 to play.
But Kirilenko held Turner to one point in the fourth quarter and Minnesota made its free throws down the stretch, overcoming a dreadful period of shooting in which the Wolves made one field goal. It was enough to beat the offensively inept Sixers, who missed 11 free throws to lose their third straight game.
Both teams have put together incredibly disappointing seasons to this point after starting with playoff aspirations. The Sixers made a trade for Andrew Bynum but have yet to get him in a game this season because of recurring knee issues. He said earlier this week that he still hoped to play this year, but he's still a week or two away from his first practice. By the time he gets back on the floor, the 76ers could be buried. They started the night four games behind Milwaukee for the eighth playoff spot in the muddled Eastern Conference.
The Sixers won't get any sympathy from the Timberwolves, who have played most of the season without Kevin Love (broken hand), Chase Budinger (knee) and Brandon Roy (knee) and have slogged through a multitude of other short-term injuries to fade from contention in the West. They staggered into the All-Star break with 16 losses in 19 games, a season of playing short-handed certainly catching up to them.
"We have a chance," Rubio said. "It's a small, small chance."
- Only Sacramento and Washington have fewer wins on the road than Philly.
- Wilkins finished with 13 points.
- Pekovic stayed in Minnesota for the All-Star break rather than seek out the sun and the sand as so many of his teammates did. He went ice fishing on a nearby lake, and Collins went up to him before the game and playfully asked him why he wasn't invited. "I went to Arizona instead," Collins said.