MINNEAPOLIS -

The Minnesota Timberwolves took a small but important step upward Wednesday night with a 104-91 victory over Eastern Conference-leading Indiana Pacers at Target Center.

Six games out of the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff spot when the evening started, the Wolves began a daunting start to their season's final two months by running past a notoriously physical opponent.

They did so even though they opened the game without starting center Nikola Pekovic (ankle bursitis) and ended it without his replacement, center Ronny Turiaf (knee).

They persevered on a night when three-time All-Star forward Kevin Love won a scorer's duel with Pacers two-time All-Star forward Paul George, 42-35.

Minnesota point guard Ricky Rubio also delivered a career-high 17 assists.

"This was one of my favorite wins of the season," Love said.

Rubio's assist total also tied a franchise record, shared now with five other players dating back to the days of Pooh Richardson, Stephon Marbury, Micheal Williams and Chauncey Billups.

The victory moved the Wolves a half game closer to that final playoff spot. They are now 5 1/2 games behind eighth-place Dallas as they head out for a five-game Western trip that begins Saturday at Utah.

"We've got to win every game just about," Wolves small forward Corey Brewer said. "We're 1-0 and now we've got to keep it going, one game at a time. You win another one, you keep winning, you never know what can happen."

The Wolves started fresh off a five-day all-star break by running off to leads of 13-5, 30-16 and 40-20 by midway through the second quarter against a Pacers team that returned from their break by beating Atlanta at home the night before.

"Tough night for our guys," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "The Timberwolves, they came out after break on a mission. They played a great basketball game."

Love and George each scored 18 points alone in a third quarter when the Pacers started themselves back from a 78-64 deficit with a 13-4 run.

"They're two great players," Pacers coach Rick Adelman said. "Kevin, 22 shots, he gets 42 points. That's pretty good."

Adelman didn't mention Love's 16 rebounds as well, or that he had a 19-point, 11-rebound double-double by halftime.

"Great all-star battle, great one-on-one battle," Brewer said. "Kevin Love wins."

Love and the Wolves won because they pushed the ball on the Pacers, winning the battle in fast-break points 18-8 on a night when Brewer scored most of his 12 points streaking behind the Indiana defenses for layups.

"We just found ourselves three or four steps behind him," Pacers forward David West said. "The team just didn't have a whole lot of pop tonight. I thought we were going to come out and play a little better than we did."

The Wolves also won because their second unit that has given up more than a couple fourth-quarter leads this season held on this team, pushing back after the Pacers got within those five points early in the fourth quarter.

The Wolves' bench players scored 12 of the next 14 points after the Pacers pulled closed, pushing their lead back to 94-79 with 6:23 remaining. Backup point guard J.J. Barea -- the subject of trade rumors leading to Thursday's trade deadline -- scored 12 points off the bench, including the 17-foot jump shot that gave the Wolves that 15-point lead and fueled their playoff hopes.

"One game at a time," Barea said. "If we play with this much energy, if we come out like this every night, we're going to have a chance."

NOTES: Coach Rick Adelman said he hopes Wolves C Nikola Pekovic (ankle) will return soon, perhaps for practices Thursday and Friday before Saturday's game at Utah. ... Wolves G Kevin Martin missed his fourth consecutive because of a fractured bone in his thumb. He is scheduled to get his thumb re-examined Friday and is hopeful of playing on the upcoming road trip. ... Pacers coach Frank Vogel on Pekovic's absence: "I was looking at my notes the first time we played these guys (in November) and I think I wrote down, 'Smashmouth styles collide.' Obviously, Kevin Love still brings that element, but it's obviously just not the same with Pek not out there." ... Thursday is NBA trade deadline and the Wolves are trying to improve a team that was six games out of a playoff spot before Wednesday. Yahoo! Sports reported Monday that the team has discussed sending PG J.J. Barea and SF Chase Budinger to Memphis for defensive-minded G Tony Allen and F Tayshaun Prince, but as of Wednesday afternoon those discussions had gone no further, according to a league source.