Zach LaVine came off a screen, saw a seam and attacked it with a little more than eight minutes left in Monday’s loss at Cleveland. When the Cavaliers defense came to help, LaVine sent a nice bounce pass to Karl-Anthony Towns for a slam dunk.
After practice Tuesday, Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell pointed to that play, in particular, as proof of the growth he is seeing from LaVine.
“He’s starting to do that,” Mitchell said. “Even when he doesn’t complete the pass, he’s trying to make the right play.”
The theme of the Wolves youth learning through the adversity of another losing season isn’t new. But looking at recent games, it does appear progress is being made.
In the loss to Cleveland, LaVine, Towns and Andrew Wiggins, all 20 years old, each scored 20 or more points. Towns had 26 on 11-for-16 shooting. Wiggins made half of his 14 shots for 20 points and LaVine came off the bench to score 21.
They became the first trio of teammates younger than 21 to score at least 20 in the same game in NBA history. Only one trio ever did it at 21 years or younger, and that would be the 2008-09 Oklahoma City Thunder, who had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden achieve the feat against Washington that November. Durant, in his third season, was 21. Westbrook, in his second, also was 21. Harden, 20, was a rookie.
One season before that, Oklahoma City became the first team in league history to have two players average at least 15 points per game in seasons that began with both younger than 21. With Wiggins and Towns averaging 20.8 and 16.1 points, respectively, the Wolves could become the second such team. And LaVine (12.0) isn’t far behind.
With the Thunder coming to town for a game Wednesday, such comparisons — and perhaps hope — are unavoidable. In 2008-09, with Durant and Westbrook both averaging better than 15 points per game, the Thunder won 23 games. The next season, it won 50.
“I think it’s a good comparison,” said LaVine, who has, at times, suffered the ire of Mitchell while trying to adapt to playing point guard. “We want to be as good as them at some point, both individually and as a team. We have to strive for that, or better.”
Asked about Mitchell’s old-school approach, LaVine said being pushed showed the coaches care about him. Then he joked: “As much as they’re on me, they must love me to death.”
But perhaps the results are coming. Over the past five games — three losses — the Wolves held a lead in each one. They shot 49.0 percent in that span, averaged 24.2 assists and 104.6 points per game. Compare that with season totals of 45 percent, 21.9 assists and 99.2 points. The Wolves are starting to move the ball more and play with more flow. On Tuesday, Mitchell — while first saying he hoped his players didn’t hear about it — praised his young players.
“I’m really proud of what they’re doing, to be so young,” he said. “But I don’t want them in the mind-set where just coming close is good enough. That’s not acceptable.”
Mitchell loved the fact that, despite giving up size and experience, the Wolves played the Cavaliers close.
So how much of their potential have the young players shown so far?
“We haven’t even come close to getting halfway to our potential,” Towns said. “Or even a quarter.”
Asked the same question, Mitchell said he didn’t know. But he added: “If they keep growing, keep relying on each other and keep thinking team first, then anything is possible.”