After a string of disappointing performances, the Wolves were finally back in the winner’s column this week. They kicked off the week with a solid outing against a new-look Los Angeles Clippers squad, and backed that up with an impressive win over the red-hot James Harden and his Houston Rockets.
With the reigning MVP in a scoring form that has to be seen to be believed, it was always going to be a tough cover for Minnesota but even more so without their best wing defender Robert Covington.
Enter Josh Okogie.
The rookie who has been heralded since day one for his ferocious attitude toward containing his man. Guarding one of the league’s best scorers is something no rookie should have to do, but the job was his, and he stepped up to the plate as well as anyone over The Beard’s 31-game run of 30+ points per night.
Before the game, he seemed eager (as he always does) to go up against the leading scorer in the NBA.
“Make it hard, I guess? What’s he on 30? Thirty consecutive games? Make it hard and make him earn every shot. Just be solid and be disciplined defensively,” he told Zone Coverage’s Dane Moore.
When the final buzzer sounded, Harden had 42 points. But Okogie did exactly what he said he was going to do. He made it hard, forcing Harden to put up his third most field goal attempts (34) all season. He was disciplined, keeping his hands out and keeping the MVP favorite and foul-drawing extraordinaire to only four free throw attempts.
Overall, Okogie was as spectacular as you can be while giving up 42 points to your opponent. He also did his fair share of work on the offensive end of the floor, contributing 16 points on 7-15 shooting and dished out four assists, too.
After a couple of solid contests on Harden’s signature stepback jumper, the rook looked like he was fully engaged. He used that pumping blood to get even more adventurous, stripping The Beard in the corner and speeding away on the fastbreak. Slightly out of control, Okogie couldn’t finish the layup, but in typical fashion, he grabbed his own rebound and snuck a pass out to Dario Saric, who repaid him by splashing home the ensuing 3-pointer.
As is often the case with the 20-year-old, the defensive brilliance provided him some offensive spark. That first bucket came in the form of a Taj Gibson hand-off. He took possession, curled around the Gibson screen, threw a little hesitation and crossover at Gerald Green, and scooped home the nifty layup.
Unfortunately, that was his only field goal of the first half and despite a few more awesome shot contests he was relatively quiet in the first 24 minutes. It seemed like he, along with his team, was in danger of fading into the abyss as Houston ended the half looking to build on their six-point lead.
A mediocre first half couldn’t hold ‘Nonstop’ down though. He exploded after halftime, flashing his entire repertoire in one jaw-dropping 24-minute showcase.
Just over a minute into the third period, he made a tasty little cut from the left wing to the front of the rim, catching a Karl-Anthony Towns post dish and bouncing up to slam through the deuce. He followed that up with a vicious take to the rim, absorbing the big body of P.J. Tucker and still managed to get the points.
With his offensive game now flourishing, Okogie decided it was time to teach the MVP a lesson or two about locking down your opponent. And boy it was something to behold.
He started off one of the most impressive two-minute stretches you will ever see by poking away the rock from a galloping Harden, collecting the loose ball, and racing up the floor to get to the line for two. Then, he leaked out of a Rocket’s miss, collected a bullet from Towns, and nigh on tore the rim off with a two-handed hammer.
In case you weren’t in enough awe, Okogie had more in his bag of hustle. He nailed a spot-up triple, and proceeded to back that up with one of the best plays of the season. With the shot clock running down, he tracked an isolating Harden, forced him to cut off his drive, and violently rejected The Beard’s stepback triple — resulting in a shot clock violation and an audible roar from the youngster.
If you needed any confirmation that Josh Okogie is a key part of this team’s core, watch that clip on a loop until you’re unable to forget.
At that point, nobody would have excused Nonstop if he checked out and reveled in his glory, but he didn’t. He kept his foot on the gas pedal, playing a key role in an excellent fourth quarter by the Wolves.
With a tick over four minutes remaining, he splashed his second 3-pointer of the night after Jeff Teague drew the defense in and whipped a pass out to the corner. With a slender 4-point lead and 93 seconds left on the clock, he rocked the rim again off an out of bounds give-and-go with KAT, and put the shackles on Harden the very next possession — forcing an airballed triple out of the scoring wizard.
When one of his best nights was done and dusted, Okogie was more than happy to put his post-game emphasis on the team instead himself. A testament to his squad-first mentality.
“I just wanted to win at that point,” he said. “A guy like that, a team like that who’s on a roll ... just to get two [wins] going into All-Star weekend I think that was the most important thing.”
When he was asked about his personal growth, Okogie was quick to point out some of the things that have him primed for a bigger and better post-break run.
“Obviously I still have a long way to go and I already know I’m going to make a lot more mistakes but I think I’m getting to the point where I’m starting to minimize my mistakes ... just doing the basics.”
When you sift through the film, you can see Okogie is doing a lot more than just the basics. He provides an edge and a burst of energy that only a handful of players consistently provide. When he does start to cut down on some of the freshman mistakes he makes, he is going to be a two-way force.
It was a perfect way to head into his first rookie/sophomore showcase. Now, Josh Okogie will be hoping to shine brightly in Charlotte for the entire world to see.