Zulgad: Wolves finding out how good life can be without Wiggins on floor

MINNEAPOLIS — Luol Deng is 33 years old, playing in his 15th NBA season and spent much of this season unable to get off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Andrew Wiggins is 23 years old, was the first-overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft and is averaging 34.7 minutes in the first season of a max-contract extension with the Wolves.

Yet, the Wolves saw strong evidence this week that they are better off with Deng on the floor and Wiggins at home. The latest example came Wednesday in Minnesota’s 121-111 victory over the Houston Rockets before an enthusiastic gathering of 15,131 at Target Center.

Deng finished with 13 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots in 35 minutes, 48 seconds. This came one game after Deng got his first start of the season on Monday in place of the ill Wiggins and scored 12 points with nine rebounds, an assist and two steals in an eye-popping 37:50 in a 130-120 victory over the visiting LA Clippers.

The Wolves will head into the All-Star break with a 27-30 record and 3.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference under interim coach Ryan Saunders. Minnesota’s next game will be Feb. 22 against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden.

Wiggins will be back by then but will the Wolves be better off because of it? No one associated with the Wolves is going to answer that question honestly, but watching the past two games it’s clear this is a different team without Wiggins and that’s not a bad thing.

This is not to suggest that Deng is the answer to anything. He’s a solid veteran who barely got off the bench before Tom Thibodeau was fired as the Wolves’ president of basketball operations and coach in early January. And Thibodeau, who was Deng’s former coach with the Chicago Bulls, was the only reason the Wolves signed him.

Saunders, however, has found a role for Deng since taking over and the former Bulls, Cavaliers, Heat and Lakers player has shown he has something left. The issue is that Deng is providing a spark that Wiggins shows far too infrequently. The Wolves won their first game, 119-117, under Saunders on Jan. 8 at Oklahoma City in large part because of Wiggins’ performance. He had 40 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes.

The immediate hope was that the switch from Thibodeau to Saunders had unlocked Wiggins’ potential, but anyone who has watched Wiggins’ career in Minnesota knew that performance only would be temporary.

The Rockets, who knocked the Wolves out of the playoffs in five games in the first round last season, entered Wednesday with a 33-23 record and in first place in the Southwest Division. The Rockets are led by superstars James Harden (he had a game-high 42 points) and Chris Paul and the absence of Wiggins should have been problematic for the Wolves.

Only the starting lineup of Deng, Dario Saric (15 points), Karl-Anthony Towns (25 points), Josh Okogie (16 points) and Jeff Teague (27 points) all scored in double figures and Derrick Rose (12 points) and Taj Gibson (10 points) contributed off the bench. The Wolves played with an energy that far too often seems to be lacking when Wiggins is involved.

The Wolves trailed by six points at halftime but rallied to take a 77-74 lead in the third quarter on a three-pointer by Okogie. Target Center then erupted when Okogie blocked a shot attempt by Harden with 3:40 left in the third. The Wolves led 87-84 after outscoring the Rockets by nine points in the third quarter.

“You’ve got to give Lu lots of credit,” Saunders said of Deng’s performance. “He was ready and 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 Harden’s. He’s a professional.”

Saunders won’t say it but the reality is Wiggins hasn’t mastered the art of being a professional and it’s looking as if he never will. The Wolves now have spent eight quarters realizing what life would be like without Wiggins and, very quietly, they have to like what they are seeing.

When owner Glen Taylor eventually decides who will be his general manager, the person might want to consider making Wiggins’ absence from the Wolves roster a permanent thing.