MINNEAPOLIS – After Wednesday night's embarrassing loss to the Denver Nuggets, Flip Saunders delivered one of the most brief postgame press conferences of the season.
It didn't last much longer than two minutes. The presser was so short that one beat writer actually popped in the room a minute after Saunders retreated back to the Wolves locker room, asking the rest of the media if he had come to the podium yet. Saunders wasn't interested in fielding many questions after that despicable performance. His responses were short and straight to the point. There wasn't much substance, but there was one clear message.
"I guarantee we won't play that bad against Portland," Saunders emphatically stated.
He was right. Not only did the Wolves play far better tonight against an insanely more talented basketball team, they actually registered their 14th victory (through 61 games) of the season in front of another packed building (an announced sellout at 19,356). Minnesota outscored Portland 70-58 during the second half to secure the win (121-113) and the home crowd was electric.
Ricky Rubio finished two rebounds shy of another triple-double with 13 points, 15 assists, 8 rebounds AND ONLY ONE TURNOVER. Rubio joked after the game, when asked if 15-to-1 was the best assist-to-turnover ratio he's ever posted, that he actually should have finished with zero turnovers. "I don't know about that charge," Rubio smirked and said to Britt Robson. He was referencing the wrongfully called offensive foul that Lillard sold to the referees.
Damian Lillard – who did his best to keep Portland in the game by scoring 11 points in the final minutes as the Wolves basically let him take it easy to the rack, and decided to exchange layups for free throws – finished with 32 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds.
Perhaps the best part of tonight's game was Rubio's clutch shot. His 3-pointer with 1:00 minute left in the game put the Wolves up 109-102. It was a huge shot over LaMarcus Aldridge, who switched onto him during the possession, and Rubio was rightfully jacked up afterwards. He pumped up the crowd, came over to bench, and pressed his forehead to shooting coach Mike Penberthy's forehead.
In the moment, you could feel the bond they have developed this season. You could sense the relief from both parties. All the hard work Rubio has put in this season to reshape his shot came to this moment. Tonight, in the clutch, when the Wolves needed him most, the hard work paid off.
"Yeah, I've been working on that shot," Rubio said in an excited, upbeat Wolves locker room after the game. "It was a great situation and a great moment and I took it."
Blazers head coach Terry Stotts had some thoughts on Rubio. "15 assists probably speaks for itself," said Stotts. "He's very good with the ball. He's unselfish, he finds people. Making that three was a big play. He's very creative. I don't know exactly what word to say to say what kind of passer he is, but he finds people."
Kevin Martin and Andrew Wiggins combined to score the first 16 points of the third quarter to lead the Wolves offensive outburst in the second half. Martin finished with a team-high 29 points (11-21) to go with 6 rebounds in 31 minutes. Wiggins finished with 18 points (8-15), 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 steals in yet another 40+ minute outing.
"For me and him, we're kind of the other team's nightmare when we both have it going because you don't know what defender to stick on who," Martin said. "I think that's where we complement each other greatly. If he has it going then he's going to take the best defender and then I can sneak a couple points and vice versa. It's been a work in progress; he's improved so much over the past two or three months since I've been out. He's a joy to play with."
Gary Neal dropped a season-high 27 points in 21 minutes off the bench. He was on fire all night. Neal connected on 8-11 field goal attempts and shot 10-13 from the free throw line (6-8 in the last minute as PDX played the foul game).
"He's got the ability to make shots," Saunders said. "As he gets a little more familiar with what we're playing out there, who's playing with him... last game he hit a couple threes, three shots in a row and we couldn't find him. I said to the bench that you've got to find the guy that's hot. It was nice to see tonight, Gorgui got the ball around 13 feet and kicked it out to the left wing and Gary was able to make a shot. Guys are getting used to playing with each other."
In the end, the Wolves came up big down the stretch and fulfilled their coaches guarantee. Maybe he should make more of those moving forward.