MINNEAPOLIS — It was a familiar sight at the end of the game last night. Andrew Wiggins had the ball in his hands to the right of the key with 25 seconds to go. The same spot where he nailed a game-winner against Phoenix two weeks ago. The same spot where he missed the potential game-tying shot against Miami on Monday. Only this time, Wiggins didn’t take the shot.
The 21-year-old beat DeMarre Carroll off the dribble and snuck around Jonas Valanciunas only to find three Toronto defenders closing in as he tried to find his sweet spot. Wiggins, the notorious facilitator, made the extra pass to an open Tyus Jones on the left side who nailed a three-pointer to give the Wolves a 110-107 lead with 19.5 seconds to go.
It wasn’t quite over, as Valanciunas scored seven seconds later, but Wiggins came up big as he hit two free throws to extend the lead back to three. Kyle Lowry missed a circus three-pointer as he fell into the Wolves’ bench as time expired, sealing an improbable comeback win for the home team, 112-109.
If you watched the first half, you would have thought Minnesota had no business winning this game. Toronto shot 60.5% from the field before the break as they got whatever they wanted off the pick and roll. That has been one of the key struggles for this Wolves team as their young stars are still susceptible to defensive lapses.
"Our best players have to lead, they have to play defense,” Thibodeau said in the postgame press conference. ”They have to. It's a must."
After the comeback win you would think that Thibs would be happy but he was demonstrably not after the game. He slapped the table as he kept reiterating that players need to “do their jobs” defensively. You can see where he is coming from when the team led for a total of 94 seconds throughout the whole game. To their credit, they clamped down in the second half, especially late, and scored on their final seven possessions to get the victory.
So what was the key to all of this? None other than newly acquired Lance Stephenson, a player so new to the team he couldn’t find the locker room yesterday after the team’s morning shootaround. Thibs mentioned that he may play some earlier that day, despite joining the team just the night before. He played eight minutes in the second quarter, scoring on his first two shots, and ended that stint with six points, two rebounds and an assist.
That could have been it, but Thibs was clearly sending a message to this team as Stephenson trotted out for the fourth quarter, where he stayed in for the remainder of the game. “It’s the NBA, everyone has to be ready. Whoever that next guy is, get in there and get the job done,” Thibodeau said after the game. His defensive grit was on display throughout, as he fought through screens like the savvy vet he is, and challenged the Raptors for boards any time he was close.
“He was in last night, did a great job yesterday, and did a good job during the shootaround. The package was very small, he’s been in a lot of games, so, knowing the NBA is a big plus.” Coach continued about Stephenson. “This is a great opportunity for him, and it’s going to be what he makes of it. So, how hard he works, professionalism, what kind of teammate he is, how he helps us, that’s critical.”
Stephenson has been in the Eastern Conference Finals. He has played many big games against some of the league’s best players (coughs LeBron James.) I mentioned that to him after the game and asked if he had any nerves when it was close at the end (give me a break, I knew what he was going to say). “Nah. I’m used to these games. I get hyped for these games. I was ready and was just trying to come in and help this group.”
Thibs knew that about him, and he wanted to show his young stars what it takes to be an established veteran in this league. His comment about the stars needing to lead by playing great defense was obviously targeting Wiggins and Towns, who both had great games. Wiggins may have had his best all-around game this season, finishing with 31 points, six assists, five boards, two steals and a block. He always puts on when playing against his hometown team.
Meanwhile, Towns finished with 29 points, 14 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal. The two combined to go 21-22 from the free throw line, and their stat lines are something fans can take for granted sometimes. As good as they were, the reserve play was key for this win. Those two, along with Jones, Stephenson and Shabazz Muhammad, played the majority of the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter. Ricky Rubio came in at the very end for his free throw shooting ability, but the veteran point guard had to sit back and watch as the Wolves came back to win. Being the best teammate in the world, this was his reaction to Tyus’ big shot:
Ricky Rubio is ecstatic for Tyus Jones after his three puts the Wolves up on the Raptors pic.twitter.com/v5BfEv317X— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) February 9, 2017
Muhammad finished with 22 points, 11 of those in the final frame, on 8-13 shooting. He and Jones provide spacing for a team that has desperately lacked three-point shooting in recent years. “It helps a lot. Those are both knockdown shooters. You can’t leave them open at all,” Wiggins said of the two after the game. “They left Tyus open and you see what happened. It spreads the floor open for everybody.”
Muhammad and Stephenson showed surprising chemistry as they shared the floor for most of Lance’s minutes. It’s interesting how adding one player seems to have changed the dynamic of what Thibs can put on the floor to create mismatches for other teams. It’s early in his 10-day contract, but after last night, he may be here to stay for the rest of the season.
DeMar DeRozan scored 30 points for the Raptors. Lowry finished with 20 points. Carroll shot 5-5 from distance, adding in 19 points while Valanciunas had 16 points on a perfect 7-7 from the field.
The Wolves host Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday. Both teams are 20-33 and fighting to get the eighth seed in Western Conference.