MINNEAPOLIS — Fifty games into their season, the Timberwolves attempted to start anew on Saturday at Target Center by treating a Feb. 8 meeting with the Los Angeles Clippers as if it was opening night.
That 15-35 record? Forget about it. Karl-Anthony Towns’ disenchantment with the franchise despite being in the first season of a five-year, $190 million super max extension? The Wolves are banking on the fact Towns’ buddy, D’Angelo Russell, coming aboard will cause him to forget all about his unhappiness. The entire Andrew Wiggins era? A bad dream of expectations never met.
An overhaul of the roster during trade-deadline week by president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas gave the Wolves a much different look and feel.
“In a way, it’s a whole new team,” first-year coach Ryan Saunders said before Saturday’s game. “That’s what we’re preaching as guys in the locker room. ‘Hey, we’re starting a new season right now in a sense,’ and want guys to approach it in that way but understand we can’t waste a day.”
On Saturday night, the Wolves didn’t. After introducing the entire team individually before the game, because that’s how few recognizable names were left following a week of activity, the new-look roster, minus Russell, played a new-look style of basketball that thrilled a sellout and raucous crowd of 18,978 and resulted in a 142-115 victory that ended a 13-game losing streak.
The Wolves, who entered Saturday’s game third in the NBA in three-point field goals attempted (39.4) but had the worst three-point field goal percentage (32.5%) in the league, finally fielded a team that could make shots from distance. It started with guard Malik Beasley, who went 7-for-13 on threes, and finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
Seven Wolves players made two or more threes — including guard Jordan McLaughlin, who had a career-high 24 points and 11 assists — and the Wolves hit on 26-of-44 three-pointers, putting them one off Houston’s NBA record for threes made in a game. Minnesota led by 22 at halftime and increased its advantage to as many as 28.
A deeper look into the Timberwolves' record performance from 3-pt range tonight:
They hit 18 contested 3-pt FGs, 5 more than any other team against LAC this season
24 of their 26 3-pt FGs were assisted on, the most in NBA history.
Malik Beasley hit a career 7 3-pt FGs pic.twitter.com/0ZFWMjlC5i
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 9, 2020
“My dinner is going to taste a little better tonight, I might get a little more sleep, but I’m just happy for that locker room and more than anything I’m happy for this organization for having a game like tonight,” Saunders said. “(I’m) happy that the fans got to see a performance like this but also you can’t be satisfied. It’s been a tough up-and-down year but I think people can see, when we stick to what we’re looking to build and we grow this thing, it has potential to be something very special.”
Beasley, whom the Wolves obtained from Denver on Tuesday night as part of a 12-player, four-team trade, made back-to-back threes with just over a minute left in the second quarter to extend the Wolves lead to 77-57 and bring fans out of their seats.
“It’s nice to have a weapon like that that can get hot,” Saunders said of Beasley. “He’s a guy that I’ve seen him, whether it’s early morning or whether I’m in the office late, he’s been there shooting and I don’t see that as a coincidence, or as something that him doing that early on in his tenure here. I see that being who he is and so with that he’s going to be confident out there and you’re not going to have to tell him, ‘Hey, keep shooting the ball, keep shooting the ball,’ because I think he’s going to do that.”
The Clippers came in with a 36-15 record but were no match for the Russell-less Wolves. In their first game without Andrew Wiggins, the Wolves didn’t just make shots. Despite having one practice with the majority of this group on Friday, the Wolves moved the basketball at a pace that made it look as if they had been playing together for years and showed an engagement in the game that was completely lacking during their second double-digit losing skid of the season.
The question now is whether this was an adrenaline-filled performance by a team that since mid-January trimmed nine guys from its roster and added nine new faces, or whether this is something sustainable? The sample size of 48 minutes on Saturday was too small to say, but the style the Wolves played was far more of what Rosas envisioned when he took the job on May 1 of last year.
That was the date on which Rosas said he realized a roster overhaul was necessary. The funny thing was the key to that overhaul was Russell and he didn’t play on Saturday because of a bruised quadriceps he suffered before being traded to Minnesota on Thursday in the trade-deadline deal that sent Wiggins to the Bay Area.
The makeover of the Wolves’ roster was so thorough that the team removed all of the pictures of players that lined the wall outside the locker room because so many are gone. Instead, there were blank spaces that waited to be filled by the latest cast that will make up the Timberwolves.
The Wolves are hoping more fans will want to see that group and they left a favorable first impression on Saturday. The team was averaging 14,417 in 25 home dates before Saturday to put them last in the league in attendance. The prospect of seeing Russell on Saturday changed that and even though he didn’t play nobody was complaining after seeing the Wolves make 26 threes and win by 27 points.
Saunders said before the game that Russell is day-to-day so he could be on the floor as early as Monday in Toronto. The soonest Wolves fans will be able to see him in person is next Wednesday against Charlotte.
Russell did take the microphone at center court before the game to say a few words. He finished by telling fans “to keep that (expletive) going,” before realizing what he had said and covering his mouth. The crowd responded with a loud round of applause. They weren’t about to be offended by one expletive and that started a party in a building that far too often is empty and quiet.
“It was a great night,” said Towns, who had 22 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists. “We were playing really well pace-wise and energy-wise. We have lost a lot and there were a lot of demons that came out at one point in the fourth quarter. We weren’t going to have that same Sacramento thing happen. (The Wolves blew a 17-point lead in the final three minutes against Sacramento in late January.) We took care of business. We did a great job of playing great tonight.”
The question is what will the new-look Wolves do for an encore?