For the first time since before Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns suited up together in 2015, the Timberwolves played a game without both of them on the floor.
Wiggins missed a second consecutive game because of a left quad bruise while Towns sat out because of right knee inflammation. In Towns’ case, this represented a positive development, seeing that he evaded a more serious injury after exiting Saturday’s game near the end of regulation.
That left the Wolves without their two maximum-contract players on Sunday. But they didn’t have to have maximum amount of talent available, considering their opponent was the tanking Knicks, whon the Wolves dispatched 103-92 at Target Center.
The Wolves relied on a pair of veterans in Taj Gibson (25 points) and Jeff Teague (20 points, 10 assists) and a blossoming rookie in Keita Bates-Diop, who provided 18 points and solid defense in his second consecutive start for Wiggins.
But this homestand put on display something that has been a theme for the Wolves. Even when the season has gone astray — and there have been plenty of those moments, from the Jimmy Butler drama, to Tom Thibodeau’s firing to road struggles — the camaraderie and kinship the Wolves have had in the locker room has allowed them to stay together and put on respectable showings at home. They have won six straight at Target Center.
In the end, it likely won’t amount to a playoff berth, but it’s that kind of atmosphere that may have allowed Towns to thrive the way he has in the second half of the season and Bates-Diop to take advantage of the opportunity that he has now.
“That’s one thing I say, even when things get rough throughout the whole year, we always just stay together,” Gibson said. “Guys always tend to just come around and embrace each other.”
One reason for that is Gibson, both on and off the court. On Sunday, Gibson was efficient and helped fill the scoring void Towns left with his absence by getting 25 points and eight rebounds. At one point in the first quarter, when Gibson made a move around New York center DeAndre Jordan for a reverse layup, Jordan paused and nodded his head in appreciation.
“He’s really a stabilizer for us,” interim coach Ryan Saunders said. “You can say that in whatever role he’s in. Whether it’s him starting, him coming off the bench or him coming and having to fill basically an offensive role where he had to be more aggressive.”
Teague also had his best game in a while, knowing he had to score and couldn’t defer to Towns or Wiggins. It all added up to one of the Wolves’ easiest victories in a while.
Other teams might have fractured under the weight of a season that has mentally been “a lot” to handle, veteran Luol Deng said recently. But to Saunders, the Wolves keep finding a way to chug along without many problems.
“These guys do like each other,” Saunders said. “That is a big thing, getting through the harder times. The harder times, they really don’t feel as hard when guys are genuinely together, and so that is one thing I guess we could say we’re thankful for with this group.”
Added Gibson: “I’ve been lucky enough, I’ve been on some teams where guys actually like each other.”
Without that, Sunday might have had a much different tone.