MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - It's been an agonizing season for Chase Budinger, rehabbing a knee injury in Minnesota while watching his Timberwolves teammates miss open jumper after open jumper without him.
He's longed for the day when he can get back out on the court and help them with his shooting and his movement without the ball, two things the injury-plagued Wolves are sorely missing. It appears that after almost five months, Budinger's wait is nearly over.
Budinger practiced five-on-five on Wednesday for the first time since he tore the meniscus in his left knee in January. If his knee responds well on Thursday morning, the versatile forward plans to play that night in Sacramento.
``I just want to be playing again,'' Budinger said. ``This season has been very frustrating for me personally because I haven't experienced anything like this before. Just sitting out all year, it's been tough. It's been mentally draining. Knowing that the summer is coming up, I just want to be out there to play these final games.''
Budinger was acquired from the Rockets in the summer, and his familiarity with coach Rick Adelman's offense made him an instant success with the Timberwolves. He averaged 11.8 points and 3.5 rebounds, emerging as a valuable player off the bench. But he was injured in just his sixth game, against Chicago on Nov. 10 and had surgery not long after.
Without Budinger, a career 36 percent 3-point shooter, and Kevin Love, who has missed most of the season with a right hand that has been broken twice, it's been a clank-fest for the Timberwolves. They're shooting an NBA-worst 29.8 percent from 3-point range and are third-worst with 43.4 percent shooting overall.
Getting Budinger back, even on a limited basis, over the last 17 games would make life much easier for point guard Ricky Rubio on the perimeter and for big man Nikola Pekovic in the post.
``Just the way he moves without the ball. He's used to moving without the ball,'' Adelman said. ``Even today, he made cuts today that the other guys don't do. He's just used to doing that. That will help us a lot. And he certainly can stretch the defense.''
Heck, just having an extra body to take up some minutes for a team that had been playing for the better part of a month with just nine players will be a welcome change. Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko are back from extended absences as well, giving the Wolves their most healthy roster since the second week of the season.
``I know it's going to be tough for him because it's hard coming back from an injury like that,'' said Rubio, who returned from a torn ACL in his left knee in December. ``But the energy that he has, it's nice to see how hard he's going in a practice like today.''
Budinger doesn't expect to get right back to his old form immediately. He's still working on his conditioning and said he is more concerned with how the rest of his body responds to getting back on the court than he is his knee, which was repaired by renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews.
``It felt good to be playing again, being out with my teammates,'' Budinger said. ``Just that first practice, a little rusty. I expected nothing less.''
With a brutal stretch of games coming up over the next two weeks, including seven games in the next 10 days, the Timberwolves will take all the help they can get.
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