The Ryan Saunders era got underway for the Minnesota Timberwolves with a 119-117 win on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.
Saunders’ first game at the helm may have also been the best game in the up-and-down career of Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins was the most aggressive he’s been this season. The Thunder simply had no answer for him as he cruised to 40 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. He was locked in on both ends throughout the game and was able to get to the free throw line a season-high 18 times.
There’s zero question that this was the most complete game Wiggins has played this season, and it’s up for debate if he’s ever had a night this productive in his career. The question moving forward now will be whether or not Saunders can get a similar effort out of him on a regular basis.
No, Wiggins isn’t instantly going to put up 40/10/4 on a regular basis, but he can absolutely be better than he has been. In fact, the best way for Saunders to prove that he deserves to have the interim tag removed from his job title is to get more out of Wiggins than Tom Thibodeau was able to. There are loads of potential that can be tapped there, and if Saunders is the guy that can get it out of Wiggins, it drastically improves the trajectory of this franchise.
Tuesday night may or may not be a sign of things to come. Wiggins isn’t going to suddenly turn into an MVP candidate, but if more nights like these are on the horizon, it’s a marvelous thing for the Wolves.
So, one of the questions that many hoped to have answered on night one was whether or not there would be changes to the rotation with Saunders in charge. It’s hard to get a grip on what will be different for a few reasons.
First, the team still isn’t at full-strength health-wise. Both Derrick Rose and Robert Covington were still out on Tuesday. Rose is hoping to return on Friday night at home against Dallas, and there should be a clearer timeline for Covington around then, as well.
While Rose and Covington both missed the entire game, Jeff Teague missed most of the second half. He was ejected following earning two technical fouls as the result of a shoving match with Oklahoma City’s Dennis Schröder. That meant that Tyus Jones spend the rest of the game running the show offensively. He finished with 10 points in 24 minutes on the court for the Wolves.
Lastly, foul trouble was a big detriment to the rotation. Karl-Anthony Towns finished with only 24 minutes played, which included the entire fourth quarter. He was pulled less than four minutes into the game after picking up two quick fouls, and then had four fouls early in the third quarter. He just couldn’t stay on the floor. Both he and Wiggins finished the game with five personal fouls.
Emotions running high
There’s no doubt that this game mattered more to some than just a regular Tuesday night in Oklahoma. With Saunders running things for the first time the players wanted to get him a win, no question. It’s also one that he wanted to get for his late father, Flip.
— Karl-Anthony Towns (@KarlTowns) January 9, 2019
It’s a really cool thing that the team was able to do this. No matter what happens for the rest of the season, this was a night that Ryan and the rest of the Saunders family will always remember.
Scary moment for Thunder
The scariest moment of the game, without question, was when OKC big man Nerlens Noel had to be taken off of the floor on a stretcher.
Noel went up to contest a dunk attempt from Wiggins and took a very hard foul. Wiggins’ elbow first caught Noel in the face before Noel’s head then smacked on the floor upon his landing.
— Carson Cunningham (@KOCOCarson) January 9, 2019
According to The Athletic, Noel sustained a concussion on the play.