The Minnesota Timberwolves’ second game against the Oklahoma City Thunder this season reached an even more contentious conclusion than the prior matchup where the Wolves won in OKC 114-112 just two weeks ago. In that one, Andrew Wiggins posted an impressive 30 points, six rebounds and five assists; tonight, he stepped up in nearly every way, finishing with 40 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
But a possession late in the third quarter looms heavy over this game even an hour after the final buzzer has sounded and the Wolves celebrated Ryan “Suits” Saunders’ first win as interim head coach. With about five minutes left in the quarter, Andrew Wiggins went to the rack with more purpose than he has all season. He was met by an equally staunch Nerlens Noel who walled up to take on Wiggins’ aggressive take to the rim. The play resulted in Wiggins’ left elbow catching Noel’s head in an awkward way, seemingly knocking him out well before he hit the hardwood. (It’s worth noting here that Noel was called for a common foul even after the refs took time to review it.) It took the medical staff a few minutes to get him strapped onto a stretcher and carted off the court, at which point Noel had finally opened his eyes. All Billy Donovan said after the game was that Noel was transported to OU Medical Center for further evaluation.
It was as scary a moment I’ve ever witnessed watching basketball, and one that serves as a somber reminder that the NBA is a collection of games where an outcome like the final score bears no weight compared to the well-being of the players who make it all possible. There’s no reason to post the video here, because there’s no reason to contribute to creating a cruel viral moment. Here’s to hoping Noel has a quick and capable recovery.
As for the game itself, it was an incredibly ferocious matchup through and through, as these two teams continue to scuffle their way into a strong inter-divisional rivalry. Paul George continued his MVP campaign, finishing with 27 points and nine rebounds. Russell Westbrook seemed to snap his frigid stretch of shooting, finishing 11-20 from the field after starting the game 4-13. He ended up with 25 points and 16 rebounds. Steven Adams (who deserves to be an All-Star this season) finished with a strong 20 points and 12 rebounds.
But it was ultimately Wiggins’ Wolves that prevailed, in large part to the play off the bench. Tyus Jones offered up some great energy tonight, poking and prodding on defense while making smart and crafty plays on the other end of the floor. Anthony Tolliver provided that veteran mentality this team so desperately lacks when Taj Gibson is off the floor. And Dario Saric had a solid night with 15 points and seven boards (four of which came on the offensive end).
With the clock winding down late in the fourth, Wiggins drove into the lane drawing Thunder defenders before kicking it to the corner to Josh Okogie who hit a huge three to put the Wolves up by four with a little under 30 seconds left. After Westbrook hit two free throws, the Wolves almost fumbled the game entirely with the Thunder forcing Tyus Jones into a turnover deep in the backcourt to get one last possession with little time left on the clock. It was perhaps one of the few missteps Saunders had all night, not using his final timeout to advance the basketball to halfcourt and draw up a play to make sure the ball ended up in a capable free throw shooter’s hands. The Thunder ended up missing their shots on the final possession, though, and Saunders walked away with a very impressive first win under his belt.
The reaction the team had toward him as he entered the locker room after the game speaks for itself. This is not the reaction Tom Thibodeau would ever bring out of his players. Attitude reflects leadership. And Saunders’ enthusiasm for his players all night was greeted with the Dasani Treatment postgame. (No Gatorade for Suits Saunders – he dresses way too well for that.)