MINNEAPOLIS — A hard foul ignited some tough talk, a few forearm shoves and a typical basketball scrum that was heated but mostly harmless. Nikola Pekovic peeled back to make sure it became nothing more than that.
As officials restored order after a testy exchange between Kevin Love and Indiana’s Danny Granger, Pacers guard Dahntay Jones singled out the Timberwolves resident bouncer.
“Hey, we don’t want any of you,” he told Pekovic. “We don’t want to mess with you.”
Jones was only joking, probably his attempt to lower the temperature on the court. But he had a valid point. It’s not wise to mess with Pek.
That’s the mushrooming reputation of the Wolves’ rugged second-year center from Montenegro.
Pekovic is a 6-11, 290-pound cinder block with 11 percent body fat and hands as thick as a Christmas ham. He has large tattoos of medieval warriors holding swords on his left biceps and calf. He can bench press 360 pounds, squat a dump truck and snap you like kindling, if the mood strikes him. His voice is Barry White deep and made even more intimidating by his Eastern Bloc accent. The theme music from “The Godfather” plays on the scoreboard after he scores, and he looks like a guy who could, you know, take care of certain things.
At least that’s his on-court persona.
“Sometimes people get the wrong impression about me,” he said. “I’m just a normal guy.”
His teammates attest to that.
“Pek is a big teddy bear,” forward Anthony Tolliver said.
Pek, a teddy bear?
“He has two personalities,” Tolliver said. “One on the court, which is a big brute, big monster. Off the court, he likes to have fun, likes to laugh, jokes around a lot.”
Which is a relief to those who come in contact with him most.
“If he was a real mean guy, I would be a little concerned, a little afraid,” longtime athletic trainer Gregg Farnam said. “He’s got a great personality and funny sense of humor.”
Some find humor in the way Pekovic hammers defenders on screens like a linebacker and treats post players like bumper cars. His physical brand of basketball has endeared him to Wolves fans and earned him a spot in the starting lineup. His cult status seemingly grows by the game, not merely because he’s Paul Bunyan strong but also because he’s proven to be pretty skilled, too.
He’s averaging 14.2 points and 9.2 rebounds and shooting 62.8 percent in eight games as a starter in place of his good friend Darko Milicic. Pek has provided toughness and scoring inside. He fights for offensive rebounds, and he has displayed some nimble — no seriously — footwork around the basket.
In doing so, he has become a fan favorite, alongside Love and Ricky Rubio.
“I’m just trying to use everything, every moment, every minute on the court,” he said. “Just trying to use that and be productive for the team. (Fans) really appreciate what I’m doing. I’m really happy for that. It’s nice when you start playing well and the team is doing well and we’re winning. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.”
Pek didn’t always tower over other kids growing up in his beloved Montenegro, a small, picturesque European coastal country that hails itself the “Jewel of the Adriatic.” He didn’t even really like basketball that much. He loved to fish more than anything. He became serious about basketball his freshman year of high school after he sprouted 6 inches that summer.
He moved to Belgrade when he was 16 and played in the Serbian SuperLeague, followed by a two-year stint in Greece in the Euroleague. NBA teams admired his size and skill, but his lucrative multiyear contract in Greece deterred them from committing a first-round pick on him. The Wolves selected him with the first pick of the second round in 2008 but had to wait two years for his arrival.
His rookie season didn’t go smoothly. “Tough on me,” he said. He faced a difficult transition to a new culture and new style of basketball. He missed 13 games because of a badly sprained ankle. He regularly battled foul trouble as he adjusted to NBA officiating and learning the line between physical play and being overly physical.
“I bet he must have had a million pick-and-roll offensive fouls last year,” said Houston coach Kevin McHale, who drafted Pekovic as the Wolves personnel boss. “I imagine he ran down the court last year and ran into people and they fell down, and he was like, ‘That’s what they’re supposed to do when I hit them.’ ”
Pekovic is averaging fewer fouls this season despite playing eight minutes more per game. He’s wiser but not any less physical. He also has benefitted from Rubio’s arrival — on both ends of the floor — and his daily individual work with assistant coach Jack Sikma. More than anything, he looks more comfortable with his role and overall game.
“I’m just trying to do my job,” Pekovic said. “I’m playing pretty much the same basketball I have all my life. It’s basketball that I like.”
Others not so much. Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who’s listed at 7-0 and 285 pounds, expressed relief that foul trouble limited Pekovic to 20 minutes of action in a January meeting.
“Thank God they took Pekovic out of the game,” Bynum said.
The San Antonio Spurs complained about Pekovic’s hard screens throughout a January game. Point guard Tony Parker ran into Pek’s picks more than anyone, but he didn’t care to elaborate afterward.
“No comment,” he said, laughing.
Pekovic’s teammates know the feeling.
“It hurts, man,” guard Wayne Ellington said. “I love playing with him because he gets you wide open.”
Said Michael Beasley: “I don’t remember because I got hit so hard. He literally doesn’t move.”
Pekovic’s strength is a product of genetics and his love for the weight room. He lifts weights every chance he gets, even on Super Bowl Sunday, which technically was a day off for players. Farnam has worked for the team for 15 years and compared Pekovic’s dedication to strength training to that of Kevin Garnett. Strength and conditioning coach Keke Lyles had to convince Pekovic to stay away from the weight room on a recent off day.
“He’s probably the strongest guy in the league right now,” veteran center Brad Miller said.
Pekovic understands how to use that to his advantage, whether setting screens or rooting himself like a redwood in the post with a defender on his back.
“If he decides to get to a spot, you can’t move him,” Tolliver said. “As a defender, you can’t really push him out of the way.”
His teammates joke about his strength, his forceful picks, the way he bangs and trades body blows. But they also appreciate how hard he works on his game and the personality he’s brought to the team.
“Off the court, he’s a calm, cool guy,” Ellington said. “On the court, he’s one of those guys you avoid. He’s the type of guy you want on your side.”