MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The way that DeMarcus Cousins has been playing lately, the Minnesota Timberwolves were looking like fools for passing on him in favor of Wes Johnson last year.
The way Nikola Pekovic is emerging as a force in the middle is definitely softening that blow.
Pekovic had 23 points and 10 rebounds, and Michael Beasley added 17 points and 14 boards to lead the Minnesota Timberwolves to an 86-84 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night in their first game without the suspended Kevin Love.
Ricky Rubio had 14 assists and five steals and Derrick Williams scored seven of his 14 points in the final four minutes to give the Timberwolves their third straight win.
But it was Pekovic on both ends — whirling to the rim for thunderous dunks on offense and beating up Cousins on defense — that was the key to the Wolves (13-12) equaling their best start since 2005-06.
"He's the reason why we won," said rookie Derrick Williams, who had eight rebounds and three blocks in the start for Love.
Pekovic held Cousins, who had 49 points and 39 rebounds in the previous two games, to 10 points on 3-for-13 shooting and 11 rebounds. The second-year man from Montenegro drew two fouls on Cousins in the first four minutes, and the volatile Cousins seemed flustered for the rest of the game.
"He is a man down there," Kings coach Keith Smart said of Pekovic. "He plays in the trenches where you have to play with a physical game and that young man has been playing well for over a week and a half now."
He had 27 points and 11 rebounds in a win over New Jersey on Friday and provided huge offensive punch on Tuesday night when the rest of his team missed 13 of 16 shots in the third quarter.
He made all six of his shots, three of them coming on dunks. One came on a between-the-legs feed from Rubio and another on a pretty spin to the baseline past Cousins.
He also lowered his shoulder and ran right over Cousins for a layup, and picked Jason Thompson at halfcourt and finished the play with a nifty finger roll to bring the crowd to its feet.
"It's fun to watch him play," coach Rick Adelman said.
Pekovic's play was just enough to hold off Jimmer Fredette and the Kings, who had won three in a row coming in. Fredette scored all 13 of his points in the final period. But Tyreke Evans and Cousins combined to shoot just 8 for 26.
The Kings had a frenetic shot to win their fourth straight game in the final seconds, but Donte Greene's 3-pointer from the corner missed at the buzzer.
"It would have been a perfect, happy ending to our comeback for that to go in," Greene said. "But it didn't fall."
Evans finished with 11 points on 5-of-13 shooting, while Thornton scored 21 of his 22 points in the first three quarters.
The Kings trailed 69-60 to start the fourth, and Smart left his starting backcourt of Thornton and Evans on the bench and put his trust in Fredette.
It's been a difficult rookie season for the heralded 10th overall pick out of BYU. He was benched for two straight games last week and played just 10 minutes in the win over New Orleans on Monday.
But after clanking his first two attempts of the game Tuesday night, Fredette found his range.
He buried three 3-pointers, scored off a steal and fed Greene for a dunk that got Sacramento back in it.
"I was just playing," Fredette said. "I knew I was shooting the ball well. We were coming back into the game, more importantly."
Greene's 3-pointer tied it at 82 with 1:09 to go, but Williams came back with a big 3-pointer in the corner to give the Wolves just enough to win without their All-Star.
Love was suspended Monday for stepping on Rockets forward Luis Scola last Saturday.
"I think it builds character and it builds a winning attitude," Beasley said. "Especially go up over .500, that's real important for us."
Notes: Love also will sit out Wednesday night's game at Memphis. ... Cousins picked up two fouls in the first four minutes and his fourth with 2:26 to go in the third. ... The Kings turned it over 19 times and shot 38 percent. ... Timberwolves C Darko Milicic missed the game with a sprained right ankle suffered in practice Monday.