Last Shots: On Okogie growing up, his block, and Saunders’ imprint

MINNEAPOLIS – Twenty-seven quick thoughts for the 27 wins by the Minnesota Timberwolves entering the All-Star break after the 121-111 victory over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night at Target Center.

1. Jeff Teague finished the night with 27 points, Karl-Anthony Towns had 25, and Houston’s James Harden kept his streak of consecutive games with 30 or more points alive as he scored 42 on the night. Despite all of that, it was Josh Okogie’s night.

2. The rookie was labeled a rising star by the NBA, and will participate in the NBA Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend on Friday night as a member of Team World, and he rose to the occasion on Wednesday night inside Target Center.

3. “I told him in the locker room, he really needs to build off of that in terms of growing up,” interim coach Ryan Saunders said after the win. “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.”

4. It’s easy to look at the box score and see Harden’s 42 points and think that he torched the rookie over and over again. That wasn’t the case. Okogie defended Harden about as well as anyone has recently. Harden needed to work for everything he got.

5. Okogie let the world in on a bit of his plan on Tuesday at practice, stating that he needed to keep Harden off the free throw line as much as possible. Harden is the league leader in free throw attempts at 11.6 per game. During his streak of games with 30 points or more he’s been getting to the line 13.3 times per night.

6. Wednesday night he only took four free throws, his second-fewest in the past 31 games. Okogie was the reason for that. He was smart, pesky, and energetic. There were very few mistakes on the part of the rookie. The highlights he made far outweighed the missteps.

7. Harden makes a living off taking step-back 3-pointers. Entering the night, he had made 169 of them on the season, which is over 70 more than total 3-pointers made by any member of the Wolves. It’s one of the most lethal shots in the sport. His step-back three is like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook, Tim Duncan’s 15-footer off the glass, and Dirk Nowitzki’s one-leg fadeaway. It’s become iconic and nearly unstoppable.

8. The biggest moment of Wednesday night’s win may have been when Okogie stopped it.

9. https://twitter.com/cjzero/status/1095880171645816833

10. “The biggest thing that helped me on that play was that I knew the shot clock was winding down and I knew that he had to create some space to get a shot off,” Okogie said. “I knew, obviously, the step-back is one of his go-to moves and I kind of just guessed and I was right.”

11. It wasn’t that he just blocked the shot. Guys can get a fingertip on a shot and send it awry all the time on jumpers. Rarely does an emphatic block like that happen on a jumper, let alone Harden’s step back.

12. “It was big time,” Towns said. “He read the play. He was just playing out of his mind, especially in the second half. He was playing out of his mind. He made it difficult on him. Underestimated Josh the whole game, they did, and Josh made them pay for it.”

13. That moment for Okogie was big. It was one where it looked like he was ready for the stage. He was ready to leave his mark on the game, and he did in the best way possible.

14. “It’s no surprise to me. He sits next to me. I know how good he is,” Derrick Rose said. “It’s all about just having moments and he had a hell of a moment tonight.”

15. Those moments may start to come more often. There often is a time in rookies when a switch goes off inside their head, when the light clicks on for them.

16. That’s not to say that Okogie hasn’t been a solid player for the Wolves this year, because he has, but it’s to say that more might be on the way. The light has been flickering for him, but this moment could be one that’s looked upon as when it really clicked.

17. “It’s like freshman year is a rollercoaster,” Okogie said. “Just trying to get it steady. I think that’s the biggest thing. 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. Starting to kinda deplete the mistakes that I’m making over and over again. Trying to minimize those and just start doing the basics.

18. “I think today was a real big test for me, and I hope I passed it.”

19. Okogie wasn’t the only one that took a step forward on Wednesday night. It’s no secret that Saunders has had a tough hand dealt to him in his six weeks at the helm. There have been nights where the only healthy point guard was Isaiah Canaan, Robert Covington still hasn’t played for him, and the team has struggled at times.

20. Wednesday night was arguably the best coaching job that Saunders did, and unquestionably the best since his first night against Oklahoma City in mid-January.

21. Saunders made tough, proper adjustments throughout the evening. He pulled Gorgui Dieng after just 1:50 on the court, realizing that he wasn’t going to be effective against the Rockets. It was a tough move to make, to only give a guy a little less than two minutes to be on the court, but there’s no doubt it was the right move.

22. Aside from that, Jerryd Bayless played 11 first half minutes and was mostly ineffective. Bayless has been terrific for the most part since joining the rotation a few weeks ago, but didn’t have it on Wednesday night. He dished out one assist in his 11 minutes and the Wolves were outscored by 13 points in that time.

23. In the second half Saunders turned to Canaan instead of him. It was only for six minutes, but Canaan was able to keep the Wolves afloat better than Bayless had as they bought time for Rose to come back and finish the game.

24. This comes one game after Saunders inserted Dario Saric into the starting lineup. It’s starting to become easier to see Saunders’ finger prints on this team. It takes time for these things to happen, especially when there’s a change of leadership halfway through the season.

25. After the All-Star break there may be more subtle changes that continue through the end of the season. They’ve been positive things, and it’s exciting to imagine how Saunders will be able to operate once the team is fully healthy.

26. The future is still unknown, but nights like Wednesday give the Wolves hope, it’s hard not to imagine what this team would look like under Saunders full-time.

27. The Wolves enter the All-Star break at 27-30 on the season and don’t play again until Feb. 22 in New York against the Knicks. Both Towns and Okogie will be participating in the festivities in Charlotte this weekend. Talk to you after some of those.