|13 December 2012|
EUROPEANS IN THE NBA
|Montenegrin Nikola Pekovic starred in a European-dominated NBA clash on Wednesday night, scoring 22 points for the Minnesota Timberwolves|
The rumoured return to action of Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio did not materialise on Wednesday night, but any match-up between NBA sides Minnesota Timberwolves and the Denver Nuggets this season has a strong European flavour regardless.
Russia's Andrei Kirilenko and Italy's Danilo Gallinari start at the small forward position for Minnesota and Denver, respectively.
Nikola Pekovic of Montenegro is the Timberwolves starting center and goes up against Kostas Koufos of Greece.
Alexey Shved, the Russian guard who challenges Lithuania's Jonas Valanciunas for the unofficial 'European Rookie of the Year' title comes off the bench and plays big minutes for Minnesota.
Meanwhile the third Russian in this company, center Timofey Mozgov, and French rookie guard Evan Fournier, complete the seven-strong European contingent in this fixture, a number that will increase by one after Rubio's return from injury.
Wednesday was Pekovic's time to shine the brightest, and not only among European passport-holders.
With the Timberwolves' star Kevin Love struggling to make an impact, the Montenegrin center took over under the basket and went seven-for-10 from the floor (eight-for-eight from the charity stripe) to collect a season-high 22 points.
He added 11 rebounds, two blocked shots and two assists to lead his team to a 108-105 victory which lifted the Minneapolis club to 10-9 in the NBA's Northwest Division, the first time since 2006 they have a positive win-loss record at this stage in the season.
Kirilenko finished with 18 points, four rebounds and four steals but, as is usually the case, his stat lines do not accurately reflect his well-rounded contribution.
With 34 seconds remaining to the final buzzer, Kirilenko, with the help of team-mate JJ Barea, forced Denver point guard, and former Zalgiris Kaunas player, Ty Lawson, into a turnover.
|Spanish guard Ricky Rubio could be back in action as soon as this weekend|
A third Minnesota player, Dante Cunningham, picked up the loose ball and passed it back to the Russian forward, who had in the meantime run the floor.
He gave the Timberwolves a five-point advantage, and effectively the win, with a slam-dunk 21 seconds from time.
"He's everywhere," Pekovic said of his fellow European star after the game.
"Trust me, it helps a lot."
Following a bad shooting game at Detroit the previous night, Gallinari, Denver's leading scorer this season, was back to his usual best on Wednesday and spurred the Nuggets' comeback attempt after they had fallen 11 points behind with just 2:04 left on the clock.
The Italian finished with 24 points on 9-for-13 shooting from the floor, including 4-of-5 shots from three-point range.
Koufos had six points and seven rebounds while Mozgov only featured for less than a minute and Fournier did not get on the court.
Shved meanwhile finished with eight points, below his season average of 10.5 ppg, but contributed five assists and two steals.
|Slovenia's Goran Dragic sunk the winning shot for Phoenix on Wednesday night|
Rubio is now expected to make his reappearance in Saturday night's game against the Dallas Mavericks, ahead of expected return date following an injury sustained back in March. He has been practising with the rest of the team for approximately a week.
"I hope he comes back. I want him to be back on the court," the universally-respected Denver head coach George Karl said about the Minnesota player.
"He's good for the game, good for the league. He's a great young player, and he plays the game the way I like it to be played."
Wednesday night action in the NBA saw two more European players making vital contributions.
The Phoenix Suns downed league leaders Memphis Grizzlies 82-80, after Slovenian point guard Goran Dragic made a game-winning hook-shot with 0:5 on the clock.
Dragic finished with 12 points and eight assists while his Polish team-mate Marcin Gortat had 10 points and eight rebounds.
Spanish center Marc Gasol had 15 points and four assists in a losing effort.
Ersan Ilyasova of Turkey meanwhile did not score the game winner, but he posted a double-double of 16 points and a season-high 14 rebounds to help the Milwaukee Bucks prevail 98-85 over the Sacramento Kings at home.