OKLAHOMA CITY – There was just a little over 4 minutes left in the third quarter of the Wolves’ eventual 119-117 victory over Oklahoma City on Tuesday night and the Thunder was rolling.
Minutes before, Thunder reserve Nerlens Noel had been carted off the floor after hitting his head on the court trying to stop another Andrew Wiggins drive. Shortly thereafter, Thunder guard Dennis Schroder had induced Jeff Teague into a shoving match, forcing Teague’s ejection with the Wolves down six points.
At that moment, Ryan Saunders and Tyus Jones locked eyes.
Saunders, making his NBA head coaching debut, asked if Jones was ready to play the final 16 minutes.
“I was like, ‘Yup,’ ” Jones said. “ ‘We got you. We will get this done.’ It’s funny how the basketball gods work, man. First game for Ryan. Not that I want anything to happen to Jeff. But I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Wiggins played perhaps the best game of his career, scoring 40 points on 11-for-24 shooting, getting to the line 18 times and making 16. He had 10 rebounds and four assists, including a pass to Josh Okogie in the corner for a three-pointer that put the Wolves up by four with 27.8 seconds left to play. Karl-Anthony Towns fought off foul problems to score 20 points. Dario Saric (15), Anthony Tolliver (10) and Jones (10) all scored in double figures off the bench.
It was a game that had everything — runs, breathtaking plays, an injury that quieted the 18,203 fans, a shoving match that had all those fans howling the rest of the night. An exhausting, back-and-forth final few minutes.
Through it all, Saunders, a 32-year-old rookie, stayed as composed as a wily veteran.
Afterward, after a raucous locker room celebration that left him drenched from head to toe, Saunders came out smiling.
“That’s all those guys in there,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how they stayed connected throughout the whole game, down the stretch. There were so many times we could have disbanded. I can’t say enough about that team.”
This was a day of emotion from the start, coming two days after Tom Thibodeau was fired and Saunders — son of the late, great Flip Saunders — was promoted from assistant coach to interim head coach. And it was a time of memories.
At the morning shoot, the first play the team ran was something called 5-52 Twist. When Saunders called for it, Jones, Gorgui Dieng and Andrew Wiggins all looked at each other and smiled.
It was a Flip play, one of his favorites. The Wolves scored on it to start the game. There were a lot of Flip flashbacks. The way Ryan Saunders, wearing a Flip pin on his lapel, held his notes, clutched in a roll, in his hand. The way he squatted down. The way he encouraged players on the court and congratulated them coming off. The tug of the neck.
“He showed his whole coaching repertoire tonight,” Towns said. “Alternating Dario and Taj [Gibson] down the stretch. Foul trouble for me, Jeff getting ejected. All the commotion and emotion in the game. He stayed composed, positive. He gave us energy, kept telling us to fight.”
And they did.
After the Teague ejection, Jones had a three-point play and the Wolves were off on a run that would build a nine-point lead on Tolliver’s three-pointer with 7:40 left in the game.
Led by Russell Westbrook, who scored 11 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, and Paul George (27 points) the Thunder stormed back, taking a 111-110 lead on Westbrook’s three-pointer with 3:34 left.
The rest of the way: Three ties, five lead changes, the pressure mounting until the final minute.
Wiggins made two free throws with 55.4 seconds left to put the Wolves up 116-115.
At the other end George missed a three, with Jones getting the rebound, then Wiggins fed Okogie, who calmly stroked his three.
With 21 seconds left Westbrook hit two free throws, then Jones was whistled for traveling when trapped on the inbounds pass. But, out of a time out with 15.5 seconds left, Westbrook missed twice on three-pointers.
The horn sounded.
Saunders had his first win.
Towns, animated in the locker room, kept talking about how the players had done this for Ryan. Veteran Taj Gibson, a Thibodeau loyalist, couldn’t say enough about the young coach.
“You gotta love the guy,” he said. “He handled the adversity so well in the huddle. Never got rattled. At all. And we got it done.”
Wiggins talked about the “chill bumps” he got during the postgame celebration.
Saunders just smiled. He credited the players for the victory, his assistants for drawing up the defense for the final 15.5 seconds.
“I was never good enough to play at a level like this,” he said when asked about that celebration. “That’s got to be the second-best feeling, walking in there and having that.
“I love those guys in there. It’s just fun to win with them.’’
Back at you. Jones grew up here. He knows what the Saunders name means to the Timberwolves. What was it like to have Flip’s son running the show down the stretch?
“This is something everyone will remember, for the rest of their lives,” Jones said. “With how crazy the last two days have been, how important and special this moment is for Ryan and his family. It was really cool. Really special.”