SALT LAKE CITY – In all the NBA’s history of tense, overtime games, there probably never has been a winning coach as livid as the Timberwolves’ Flip Saunders seemed after Monday’s 106-104 victory over Utah.
He had just seen his team with only seven healthy players win in OT, at altitude, on the second night of back-to-back games. Instead of being in a celebratory mood, he was incensed after he returned to a joyous locker room and found what he said were 25 text messages informing him of comments made by Utah’s television broadcast earlier in the game.
Monday’s game wasn’t carried by FSN back in the Twin Cities, so interested fans needed to catch the Jazz broadcast on the NBA’s League Pass. Jazz announcers said, to paraphrase, that teams purposely losing games to improve draft lottery odds by dressing only seven available players is bad for the league, bad for fans who pay good money to see Kevin Garnett and the league needs to do something about it.
Utah fans didn’t see Garnett, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Gary Neal or four other injured Wolves players Monday. They did see newly signed D League guard Sean Kilpatrick make three three-pointers in a fourth-quarter comeback, and they also saw Zach LaVine ignore a mental mistake with the game on the line and make two clutch threes in the final 21 seconds of regulation to force overtime anyway.
“That’s totally irresponsible, we’re not tanking games,” Saunders said. “If that’s so, then [Utah] got beat by a team who was tanking. … We’re playing to win. Our guys are out there: We won two games ago at New York, we lost in the fourth quarter against Charlotte last night. We’re not tanking games. It is irresponsible for them to go on TV saying that. If you work at ESPN, you get fired for saying stuff like that.”
The Wolves won for the second time in three games after they had lost 10 of 11 before that.
They did so Monday by beating a Jazz team that had won 14 of its previous 19 games and had led by as many as eight points before the Wolves pulled a most improbable comeback.
Improbable because of a depleted roster that went to seven available players when the Wolves scratched Martin from the starting lineup because of hamstring problems.
Improbable also because the Wolves shot their way to victory with a weapon they have not utilized often this season: the three-point shot. They went 12-for-19 from long range, while Utah went 9-for-28, with Jazz guard Trey Burke — who shot 4-for-22 — missing winning three-point tries both at the end of regulation and OT as well.
Kilpatrick made three threes in the fourth quarter alone, when he scored the first 11 points of his NBA career. He scored two more in overtime.
Just five days before, he played for the Delaware 86ers. On Monday, he played a starring role only after he was signed Thursday to a 10-day contract mostly because he could get to Madison Square Garden in time for that night’s game.
“I’m just thinking about practice tomorrow,” Kilpatrick said when asked about Monday’s head-spinning fourth quarter.
Kilpatrick’s shooting enabled LaVine to step forth near the end of a 27-point performance by making those two threes late in regulation. The second one, a pull-up 27-footer, tied the score at 96-96.
“That’s what he is,” Saunders said. “He’s a guy who embraces big moments. He’s not afraid to make the big shot.”
Not even after he had committed a foul with 26 seconds left in regulation when his team trailed by two and there was no reason to foul. The Wolves reached overtime when LaVine made those two threes while Garnett reportedly went wild watching the game from the team’s locker room.
“It don’t mess with me,” LaVine said about following a mental mistake with two big plays. “If you all know me, I’ve got the mentality to take and make any shot. So that was my mentality coming down, knocking those down.”