It's so close, Nikola Pekovic can feel it on the bottoms of his size-18 high tops.

The past two Minnesota Timberwolves games, their mammoth center has stepped on courts in Salt Lake City and Portland, Ore., for warm-ups to test his tender right ankle. Even with optimism abounding for his much-needed return, he's wound up sitting on the bench all night, just as he has since being diagnosed with right-ankle bursitis late in January.

While there, he's smiled, shaken hands and taken pictures with fans -- that giant teddy-bear persona he's become known for.

But within that 6-foot-11, 285-pound frame, there's a longing going unfulfilled. Still.

"I feel kind of frustrated because it's been longer than I expected, but with this injury it's just that type of recovery and everything," Pekovic said. "It's been frustrating for me because I really wanna be on the court."

Pekovic has missed Minnesota's past 12 games, nearly a month of basketball. Each of his first three NBA seasons, he sat out at least 17 contests due to various minor injuries, prompting the Timberwolves to put a games-played incentive in the extension he signed this past summer.

Since returning before training camp, Pekovic has worked closely with the team's training staff to become more flexible and durable in hopes of preventing further absences.

So this is getting kind of old.

"I've been having a good year and everything's been working fine," said Pekovic, who led the league in second-chance points and offensive rebounds before exiting early Jan. 27 at Chicago, citing pain above his right foot. "I'm just missing the guys and missing playing really much."

Pekovic participated in drills for the first time Thursday and did so again Friday before departing with the team for its current five-game road trip. Some light work at Utah's EnergySolutions Arena on Saturday revealed there was still too much soreness and stiffness for him to perform, and a similar routine Sunday at Portland's Moda Center produced the same, aggravating result.

The Timberwolves sure could've used him Sunday, when they fell at Portland after leading by as many as 18 in the first half. With backup center Ronny Turiaf also out, they're down to usual power forward Kevin Love and rookie Gorgui Dieng as the only viable five-spot options.

Love has handled the shift well, averaging 33.1 points and 14.4 rebounds per game since Pekovic's injury. But Dieng remains mostly a nonfactor, and a makeshift frontcourt rotation featuring Dante Cunningham, Luc Mbah a Moute, Shabazz Muhammad and Robbie Hummel in more central second-unit roles only works as a temporary fix.