Editor’s Note: NBA Post Presence is a column dedicated to the Bigs. This space is your one-stop shop for commentary and analysis on the guys who play with their back to the basket in the NBA. As always, you can scroll over words underlined in red for additional commentary.

Alert! Lanes across the Western Conference are being invaded by giant men from Eastern Europe! It’s just like Red Dawn except compelling and believable. No, these invaders aren’t Russian. Their Polish and Montenegrin. The Terror Alert color of the day is…White! Pasty, pasty white.

Tonight’s game between the Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves featured a matchup between up-and-coming centers in the NBA’s Western Conference. I’m speaking, of course, about Marcin Gortat and Nikola Pekovic. You may know Gortat as Dwight Howard’s former backup or the driver of this sweet BMW M5. You might know Pekovic as that guy who looks exactly like Kevin Love from far away. Both Love and Pekovic have thick beards and run down the court in a way that can only be described as “not fast”. The best way to tell them apart is that Love is the guy bombing threes and Pekovic is the guy dominating the post on nearly every possession.

I’ll be honest, Pekovic wasn’t even on my radar as a standout post player until he dropped 30 points against the Rockets back on February 17th. From that point on, I kept an eye on the schedule for a good matchup to evaluate the big man from Montenegro. A visit to play a fellow import from the former Soviet Block seemed as good a time as any to give Nikola a look. Plus players having career nights against Phoenix has become commonplace this season.

I had also been dying to get the chance to write about Gortat in this column. I spend most of my nights writing about the Suns for ESPN TrueHoop’s Valley of the Suns, so I have seen Gortat play a ton this season. He had a career night against the Thunder last Wednesday, dropping 28 points in a 104-94 loss. He has really developed his post scoring this season, so I was giddy at the prospect of watching these two pasty, yet talented young big men go head-to-head for 48 minutes.

It was clear from the opening period that was not what I was going to see.

Nikola Pekovic’s first quarter against the Suns is the single best performance I have seen by post player this season. His complete domination of the Suns’ frontline was incredible. He made every play you could ask a center to make on the offensive end, and he made it look easy. Phoenix starters Channing Frye and Gortat are no slouches on defense. Each of them is a fully capable shot blocker with adequate foot work and positioning. Pekovic made them look like folding chairs nailed to the ground. There was nothing Frye or Gortat could do to keep Pekovic away from the rim. He finished the first quarter with 15 points on 7 of 9 shooting. More importantly he drew two fouls on Gortat and forced The Polish Machine to the bench halfway through the first. He also forced Gortat to the bench with four fouls with five minutes left in the third. All in all, Gortat had one of his worst games of the season recording only eight points and four rebounds. Marcin had no blocks, four fouls (all drawn by Pekovic), and four missed free throws, including two crucial misses late.

This was by no means Pekovic’s best game of the year, but his performance is indisputable evidence of exactly how great a player he can be down low. Nikola finished the night with 24 points going 11 of 17 from the floor. He grabbed eight rebounds – five on the offensive end, and his scoring in the first quarter kept the game within reach for the Wolves who came out cold and allowed Phoenix to put up 34 points.

There were five things that stood out to me about Pekovic:

  1. Resilency. Pekovic doesn’t have a ton of lift, so despite being listed at 6’11” he gets his shot blocked from time to time. In the first few minutes of this game, Gortat buried a jumper with Pekovic guarding him and Frye blocked Nikola at the rim. Pekovic came down and scored the next seven Wolves’ points. Most bigs have a tendancy to get down on themselves when they get blocked or get scored on. Pekovic just kept on playing hard.
  2. Footwork. Nikola isn’t fast by any definition of the word, but he does have quick feet. When a Phoenix defender was bodied up on Pekovic directly, he was able to face the basket and beat them – going either to the middle or the baseline. At 7:53 in the first, he faced up on Gortat, stepped to the middle, and buried a runner in the lane. 90 seconds later, with Channing Frye guarding him on the right block, Pekovic backed Frye down, faced up, and scored on a nice step through move to the baseline side. He is perfectly capable of executing a standard drop step, but his footwork on face ups is impeccable and is his clear strength in the post.
  3. Body position. At 290 lbs, Pekovic has a good deal of weight to throw around. He uses his body very well both posting up and blocking out. More than half of the fouls Pekovic drew were loose ball fouls on rebounds where he had great position and forced his defender to go over or through his body for the ball. His work on the offensive glass got him several put back buckets. His size and rebounding ability force whomever is guarding him to abstain from help defense lest they allow him to get inside position for a rebound. When it comes to posting up, Pekovic is always driving towards the rim and moving his defender with his backside to provide a clear path to the bucket. The best example of this was at the 3:44 mark of the 3rd quarter. Pekovic positioned himself in the middle of the key with his left foot pointed at the rim, his hands up, and his butt on the Suns’ player defending him. He did this early in the possession before any teammate was in position to get him the ball knowing the opportunity would be there. Sure enough, he got an entry pass and an easy bucket after the ball swung around the perimeter. The Suns’ frontline needed to move him out of the key and away from the rim, but for most of the evening they were unable to do this. With how much Pekovic was in the lane, it was impressive that he was called for only one 3-second violation.
  4. Hands. The downfall of many a big white guy in the NBA is his hands. From what I saw Monday night, Pekovic has great hands. He caught quick passes as he flashed in the lane and wrap-around dishes on the baseline with ease. I don’t believe he fumbled a pass all night.
  5. Confidence. I mean this not just in the confidence that Nikola has in himself, but the confidence his teammates have in him as well. It was clear in the first half that Kevin Love did not have it going, so the Timberwolves got the ball to Pekovic early and often believing he could carry the scoring load and help them keep pace with the Suns.

As for Gortat, this was just one of those games where very little aside from hitting his first jump shot went right. Not much else can be said.

My main takeway from this game is that the Montegrin invasion is upon us. Phoenix was nearly powerless to stop it, and your team could be next.

If the Wolves have any hope of competing for the 8th spot in the West now that they are Rubio-less, they will need Pekovic to play like this night in and night out. If he keeps this up, I suspect we’ll see him here in the NBA Post Presence column again soon.

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