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Wolves 121, Rockets 111: Rookie WalLOL

Despite sharing the floor with two All-Stars, it was the Wolves Rising Star who shined brightest Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

With just hours left before the start of 2017 NBA Free Agency, a Stein Grenade exploded in downtown Minneapolis, rocking the Timberwolves franchise to it’s core:

After already trading fan favorite Zach LaVine earlier in the week to the Chicago Bulls in a package for Jimmy Butler, (then) President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau decided he needed to clean house even further. With his eyes set on signing free agent Jeff Teague at the stroke of midnight, Thibs finally pulled the trigger on the beloved Spanish Unicorn, shipping him to the Utah Jazz primarily in exchange for cap space (as well as a 2018 first-round pick that the Jazz originally acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder). It was the end of an era in Minnesota, one that few fans (myself included) were ready to accept and/or embrace.

By now, you know how the rest of this story goes. The Wolves replaced Rubio with Teague, scrapped and clawed their way to a record of 47-35, and finally ended their thirteen year playoff drought. The first postseason berth in over a decade was greatly celebrated at the time, but also meant the Wolves would finally convey their own first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks in a trade I’d rather not discuss ever again. The net result? 5 playoff games and only one first-round pick.

Why do I bring up all of these sad memories, you say? Well, on Wednesday night against the defending MVP, that first-round pick acquired in the Rubio trade finally got his chance to introduce himself to a national audience:

Simply put, Mr. Nonstop was fantastic tonight against the Rockets, despite what a simple glance at the box score might say. Yes, James Harden poured in 42 points, his 22nd 40+ point effort of the season. But The Beard was tested all night, forced to take countless contested jumpers while only getting to the charity stripe four times (his second lowest total since December 6th, 2018).

With both Robert Covington (knee) and Andrew Wiggins (illness) sidelined, Ryan Saunders was forced to get creative Wednesday night, constructing the unlikely tag team of Okogie and the 33-year old Luol Deng in efforts to slow down the scoring sensation that is James Harden. While it was the rookie who secured the highlights, it was the old vet who secured his head coach’s praise after the game:

You’ve got to give Lu a lot of credit. He was ready. He gets in there and battles bigger guys. He gets in there and battles catch and shoot guys. He gets in there and battles the James Hardens. He’s a professional.”

But back to Okogie... the 20-year old did what he does best, igniting the crowd with his energy and hustle, all while dropping in 16 points on 47% shooting. While Wednesday’s performance may have come as a surprise to some, not everyone was shocked by the rookie’s coming out party, including Josh’s neighbor in the locker room Derrick Rose:

“It’s no surprise to me. He sits next to me. I know how good he is. It’s all about just having moments and he had a hell of a moment tonight. It was a battle for him. If anything, I think it’s going to help him grow as a player. Give him confidence. Playing in the event this weekend and being a part of that I think it’s just going to help build his character and the player that he is.”

Ryan Saunders echoed Rose’s comments post game, adding:

“I told him in the locker room, he really needs to build off of that in terms of growing up. We saw him grow up tonight in a lot of ways, I thought. In terms of following the game plan and just staying in the moment and not getting outside of himself. You also talk about him…16 points, he hit a couple of big threes and then one turnover too. That was impressive.”

As is the case for many first-year players, it’s been an up-and-down season thus far for the kid out of Georgia Tech, but Wednesday night the Rising Star showed why many people considered him the steal of the 2018 NBA Draft. While we may never forget Ricky Rubio’s flashy passes or ability to change faces, Josh Okogie is doing everything he can to usher in a new era of memorable basketball in the Twin Cities.

Full Game Highlights

Game Notes

  • Speaking of Rubio, the man who eventually replaced Slick Rick as starting point guard balled out of control Wednesday night, posting his second consecutive double-double, tallying a season-high-tying 27 points to go along with 12 assists. Tonight’s performance was Teague’s eighth double-double, third 20 point/10 assist and fifth 20+ point effort of the season (h/t Twolves_PR).
  • Karl-Anthony Towns scored 19 of his 25 points in the second half, connecting on 8-of-12 from the floor including 3-of-4 from deep after halftime. He added nine rebounds, five assists and a pair of blocked shots while finishing a game-high +20 in 33:34 tonight.
  • Minnesota hit 54.4% from the floor, the team’s second-highest field goal percentage of the season (58.1% vs. Utah on Oct. 31). The Wolves are now an astonishing 10-0 when shooting 50%+ at Target Center this season, which is something this blogger suggests they do more going forward.
  • The Timberwolves connected on a nice 6-of-9 from three-point range in the fourth quarter, upping the team’s total for the game to 10-of-20. Conversely, James Harden and Chris Paul combined to MISS 20 threes (the Rockets as a team shot 19-of-53 from deep).
  • Everyone’s favorite starter Dario Šarić tallied 15 points against Houston on 6-of-9 shooting, including 2-of-2 from three-point range (his fourth game with multiple treys in his last five contests). While the night belonged to Mr. Okogie, it cannot be stressed enough how much more comfortable Saric has looked as of late, a testament to Saunders trust and confidence in the young Croatian.
  • Minnesota now moves to 14-2 at home this season when heading into the fourth quarter with the lead.

The Wolves will now head into the All-Star break riding a two-game winning streak, and could possibly get both Tyus Jones and Robert Covington back by the time they take the court again next Friday. With 5 of their next 10 games against the Knicks, Wizards, or Hawks, the Wolves may finally be getting all their troops back at just the right time.