Over the past few years, something about Oklahoma City has tended to bring out a tenacity in the Timberwolves that is absent throughout much of the rest of the season. It’s a tough place to play, which was an obvious concern coming into tonight given Minnesota’s abhorrent record on the road. The Thunder crowd hold a fervent loyalty to Russell Westbrook, which he feeds off of night in and night out, making for an intimidating and raucous environment. But in recent seasons the Wolves have figured out how to interject themselves into that and intercept some of that energy. There’s Ricky Rubio’s game-winner in 2016 and Andrew Wiggins’ buzzer-beater in 2017. And then there’s tonight – a rollercoaster of lead changes culminating in another dramatic finish.
Following the nasty loss in San Antonio on Friday, I wrote a little bit about the Wolves’ Jekyll/Hyde syndrome and how they seem to erratically fluctuate back and forth between success and complete incompetence. True to form, the difference between Friday’s game and tonight’s seems like night and day.
Sure, the Thunder came into tonight on the tail end of a back-to-back, but the Wolves haven’t beaten a Western Conference opponent on the road all season, let alone one that is tied for first. This was a big win in a tough environment where they had to fight back from being down by as many as 12 late in the third quarter. And for what it’s worth, when it comes to the second game on back-to-backs, the Thunder were 3-1 coming into tonight.
To start off the game, Minnesota came out strong, with Andrew Wiggins putting up 15 points in the first quarter alongside Karl-Anthony Towns’ 11. Wiggins was exploiting mismatches on the offensive end by attacking the rim when players like Alex Abrines got switched onto him. He finished with 30/6/5 on 11-20 shooting, but he missed some crucial free throws that could have helped seal things a little sooner than the final buzzer. Wiggins deserves a lot of credit for how he played tonight, but those late-game misses from the line will plague a team and he absolutely needs to capitalize on those opportunities.
With both Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose out tonight, Tyus Jones played 31 minutes with Jerryd Bayless backing him up with 16. Jones stepped up and did his job tonight taking care of the basketball and facilitating the offense, but it’s clear that Bayless is a little rusty. He hit a couple nice threes, but he had a really tough time with Dennis Schroeder up in his grill for 94-feet whenever he was on the floor.
For the most part the Thunder played their game the way they have in recent weeks. Russell Westbrook bolted up and down the floor for a triple-double, Steven Adams proved to be a pain on the offensive glass and Jerami Grant put up 14 points and seven rebounds, continuing the nice stretch he’s had so far this season.
But Paul George, like he has been all season, was on another level. He finished with 31 points and 11 rebounds and seemed to do a little bit of everything all night. It sounds strange to say, but as good as he is, after watching him tonight I think he might still be a little underrated. What he does on defense is nearly unmatched, but the feel he has for the game on offense is tantamount. He is incredible at working his way into the lane with the ball and making quick reads based on how the defense is reacting to him.
He was a big reason the Thunder outscored the Wolves 38-18 in the second quarter, but Minnesota came charging back in the third by outscoring them 33-17 once they started connecting from three. (Minnesota finished 14-27 from deep.)
This set things up for a dynamic finish with the Wolves trading buckets with Westbrook down to the wire. Dario Saric hit a clutch corner three, Wiggins had a strong finish at the rim through a lot of contact and Josh Okogie smothered George without fouling during the final possession. This was one of those rare games where nearly everyone on the roster deserves some form of praise. It’s a long shot, but this is the style of play the Wolves will need to maintain if they want any chance of getting back into the playoff hunt.