MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Timberwolves know how hard it is to win games when a team's best players are in suit coats rather than uniforms.
Two of Minnesota's top big men were back in action Sunday, and the result gave a glimpse of what might have been. The returning players, Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic, provided the key moments down the stretch in the Timberwolves' 97-95 victory over the New Orleans Hornets.
Pekovic made two free throws that gave Minnesota the lead for good, and Kirilenko blocked shots on each of the Hornets' final two possessions.
Both players saw action for the first time this month. Kirilenko missed nine games due to a calf strain, and Pekovic missed eight because of an abdominal strain.
"Andrei's block was unbelievable, actually both of them," Minnesota coach Rick Adelman said. "Pek made two big free throws, and we needed them."
The result was a much-needed victory for the Timberwolves, who had dropped two in a row and 10 of 12. New Orleans has lost eight of 10.
Derrick Williams led Minnesota (23-41) with a career-high 28 points and seven rebounds, while Ricky Rubio added 16 points and Pekovic had 13.
Greivis Vasquez scored 24 points for New Orleans (22-45), while Robin Lopez added 20 and 11 rebounds. Anthony Davis finished with 17 points and nine boards.
That Kirilenko and Pekovic were able to make key plays at the end of the game was unexpected.
"I played basically without any basketball practice," Kirilenko said. "This was my practice. It is the first 5-on-5 action I have seen in like three weeks, and it is very tough. I feel like I'm a step short or a step slower."
In a fourth quarter that featured multiple lead changes, Minnesota moved in front for good, 96-95, on Pekovic's foul shots with 14.5 seconds to play.
Pekovic, who had 13 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes, grabbed the offensive rebound of a Williams miss and was fouled trying to finish the put-back.
Kirilenko blocked a shot by Eric Gordon with six seconds to play. Fouled after grabbing the rebound, Kirilenko made one of two free throws for the final point of the game. He wound up with eight points and five rebounds in 25 minutes.
The Hornets had one more chance to tie or win, but Kirilenko erased it by blocking Roger Mason's jumper from the right corner just before the final horn sounded.
"We had a chance to win the game," New Orleans coach Monty Williams said. "We were up by four, and we fouled a guy going to the basket and give them a 3-point play. You can't explain that kind of stuff. Then we have the ball with a chance to score a bucket, and we can't score a bucket.
"We didn't shoot the ball well, but we gave it up 20 times, so that compounds it all."
New Orleans led 95-91 with a minute to play when Vasquez made two free throws, but Minnesota's point guard wouldn't give up. On the next possession, Rubio beat his man off of the dribble, got to the basket and completed an old-school three-point play to cut the lead to 95-94 with 48.7 seconds left.
The two teams, which are a combined 23-49 since the start of 2013, traded the lead for much of the fourth quarter. Ryan Anderson buried a 3-pointer with just less than six minutes to play to give the Hornets an 85-83 lead.
Rubio answered with a jumper on Minnesota's next possession, trying the game at 85-85.
Vasquez hit two 3-pointers down the stretch, the second of which put the Hornets ahead 91-88 with 3:24 remaining. Lopez stretched the New Orleans lead to 93-90 with a bucket with 2:25 to play.
Despite being rebounded badly -- the final margin was 41-27 for New Orleans -- Minnesota led 76-73 after three quarters. The Timberwolves made up for the lack of rebounding by moving the ball on offense and shooting 56.3 percent from the floor. The Hornets shot 45.9 percent.
New Orleans led 52-50 after a first half that featured multiple runs by both teams.
As was the case in the first quarter -- when the Hornets led by as many as eight points -- New Orleans wasn't able to extend the lead. Minnesota closed the half on a 9-3 spurt.
NOTES: This was Minnesota's first victory in a one-possession game since beating Denver 108-105 in on Dec. 12. ... Anderson, who is second on the Hornets in scoring, missed a game at Brooklyn because of illness. He played in Friday's loss at Washington, but Monty Williams said he wasn't close to healthy. ... Davis, the top pick in last year's draft, appears to be figuring out the NBA. Over the past five games before Sunday, he averaged 16.8 points and 10.8 rebounds. ... The victory gives Adelman 994 career wins. He is closing in on becoming the eighth head coach in NBA history to record 1,000 victories.