Last Shots: On Saric’s start, Deng’s heavy minutes, and the return of point guards

MINNEAPOLIS – Twenty-four quick thoughts for the 24 minutes played by Derrick Rose in Monday night’s 130-120 win for the Minnesota Timberwolves over the LA Clippers.

1. The Wolves are probably not making the playoffs. It grows more unlikely by the day as the hour glass is slowly running out of sand with the end of the season off in the distance.

2. On Monday night, they kept themselves alive, even if only the slightest bit. Instead of falling a full six games behind eighth place with 26 games remaining in the season, they’re only four games behind the Sacramento Kings for the final playoff spot in the West. While it’s up for public debate whether or not that should be the goal for the Wolves, it certainly is the goal inside that locker room.

3. The playoff flame keeps flickering, for the night at least. A trip to the postseason is still highly unlikely. The Wolves have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA and haven’t shown the ability to win on the road in any significant capacity.

4. One of the reasons that the Wolves were able to pull out a victory on Monday night was the play of Dario Saric. He was in the starting lineup for just the second time in his tenure with the Wolves, the first being a December game in Phoenix that Taj Gibson missed due to personal reasons.

5. Saric has stated in the past that he’s more comfortable in the starting lineup. His best season of his young career was last year, in which he started 73 of the 78 games he played for the Philadelphia 76ers. But since he’s been in Minnesota he’s been a bench player. Not until recently has Saric become comfortable in that role, and now it appears as if he won’t be in it any longer.

6. I’ve thought about it. I like how Dario spaces the floor, especially with Karl. The way teams have started… Karl is demanding a ton of attention down there,” interim coach Ryan Saunders said after the win. “Sometimes at this point in the season you need to shake something up a little bit. Lucky for me I have a guy like Taj Gibson on our team. I can’t say enough about him. When I brought him the idea, it was actually yesterday, he was all for it.”

7. The talk of the night wasn’t about how well Saric performed in his opportunity, but rather how well Gibson handled the news that he wasn’t going to be the starter. This isn’t a surprise to anyone that follows the team. He’s been a great presence in that locker room. It hasn’t been a topic of discussion regularly with the media, and he didn’t want it to be.

8. “I don’t really care, I’m not really into that. I can play off the bench, starting,” Gibson said all the way back in November when Saric was acquired as part of the return for Jimmy Butler. “I knew that question was going to happen. This is the only time I’m answering that question. I can come off the bench or I can start, it doesn’t matter. I’m not into going against players, going against teammates and all that. I just want to win games and compete, that’s my ultimate goal.”

9. Gibson was true to his word on Monday night. He played well in his first game off the bench since March 3, 2017 as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

10. “First of all, I want to make sure Taj is good with that. It was my first feeling and then I talked to coach,” Saric said. “Obviously, in Taj we’ve got a great teammate, great person, special person who is really, really here to help the team. I don’t know what to say about it.

11. “Obviously [Taj] is the guy who spent so many years in the league and a great career behind him, a lot of good teams, a lot of very big and important games. It wasn’t easy probably for coach Ryan, it wasn’t easy for me.”

12. This is a change that the Wolves needed to make not necessarily for the immediate payoff, but rather to find out exactly what they have in Saric. He could be a key member of this team for many years to come and is approaching restricted free agency in the summer of 2020. The sooner the Wolves have an idea of just how good he can or will be for them, the better.

13. If Monday night was any indication, they’re in a great spot. He played one of his best games since arriving in Minnesota, even if it got off to a big of a rocky start. In his first 97 seconds on the floor he missed an open layup and committed two fouls and was forced to head off to the bench.

14. “I was a little bit nervous in the beginning, after three months I’m starting again. I was clearly excited. I missed a layup, first layup, I was like ‘oh my god.’” Saric said. “I get the two fouls and after that I tried to figure out, I tried to learn how to play with the guys and they try to find you, you try to find them and play good team basketball and win the game.”

15. It took Saric a chunk of time to become comfortable as a bench player, and it may take him a bit more time to readjust, but he hopes that moves quickly.

16. “I don’t know. It’s a really, really, really hard question. I really hope I’ll figure it out immediately and start to feel good in that position. Obviously, I think everybody likes more to start than come from the bench, and I got the same feeling.”

17. Saric wasn’t the only new starter on Monday night, as Luol Deng started his first game since the beginning of the 2017-18 season as a member of the Lakers. His reason for starting was nearly as permanent as Saric’s. Deng was in the lineup due to Andrew Wiggins coming down with an illness and being unable to suit up.

18. Deng delivered when called upon, finished with 12 points and nine rebounds in a game-high 38 minutes of action. It’s the highest minute total he’s had since April of 2016 when he was with the Miami Heat.

19. “I didn’t see that coming two weeks ago. Lou stays ready. I kept asking him, ‘Are you OK?’” Saunders said after the game. “He was the guy who was doing a pretty good job on keeping up with some of their catch-and-shoot guys. He’s smart. Him not coming off the body was a big thing for us, especially when you get a little lead, three-point shooters are going to get you back in the game if they’re coming back. So not only what he did offensively, but defensively he was really good.”

20. Deng won’t need to be counted on to play this load of minutes regularly as long as Wiggins is available. For all the gripes about his game, the one thing that can’t be knocked is his durability. Monday night was just the sixth game in Wiggins’ career that he didn’t play.

21. Regardless of whether or not the Wolves will need more nights like Monday from Deng, it’s comforting for the team to know that he can absolutely provide them when asked.

22. While Wiggins was out of the ever-changing lineup for the Wolves, the point guard depth was finally replenished a bit as both Jerryd Bayless and Derrick Rose played after being out of Friday night’s game against New Orleans. Jeff Teague was also in action for the second straight game.

23. Both Teague and Rose played well. Teague was able to handle a full minutes load – even if it was a little bit higher than Saunders preferred – and Rose had plenty of electric moments in the win, too.

24. The Wolves get back in action on Wednesday night at home against the Houston Rockets in their final game prior to the All-Star Break. Talk to you then.