Back after starting the season 2-0 elsewhere, the Timberwolves return to Target Center on Monday night for a home opener that will provide all the anticipation and excitement such things usually do, plus a special pregame scoreboard video that remembers president of basketball operations and coach Flip Saunders.
Fans arriving for the game against Portland are advised to be in their seats by 6:45 p.m. for a video that FSN will televise as part of its game-night coverage starting at 7.
After Sunday’s practice, Timberwolves players and coaches recorded their memories and sentiments about the man who brought most of them to the organization and envisioned the new practice facility they enter daily. Saunders’ friends and colleagues, both from home and around the NBA, did so as well for the tribute.
The team attended a private memorial service Saturday afternoon in Plymouth that drew current and former coaches such as Doc Rivers, Tom Izzo, Rick Carlisle, Gregg Popovich, Jeff Van Gundy, Randy Wittman, Fred Hoiberg and Tom Thibodeau. A public memorial event honoring Saunders will be held later this year with details still to come. He died on Oct. 25 at age 60 because of complications from his cancer treatments.
“It was a great ceremony and a great way to send him off,” Wolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns said.
Veteran guard Kevin Martin called Saturday’s service an afternoon that brought teammates closer together.
“A lot of things that happen on the court never compare to once you leave these lines,” Martin said after Sunday’s practice. “Our young guys, they grew up a lot over the last week, seeing that basketball is just a very small part of your life.”
The Wolves played through their sorrow last week and won games in Los Angeles against the Lakers and at Denver. Now they come home for their first game at Target Center, a night that for sure will begin poignantly.
“We just can’t focus on those things,” Wolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell said. “You know it’s opening night and with all the things happening, it’s going to be emotional. But our guys some kind of way have to slip their minds back to doing what they do and that’s play basketball. And they’ve done a good job doing that so far.”
The Wolves focused enough last week to beat the Lakers by a point after they had trailed by as 16 points Wednesday. They then won Friday at Denver, a 17-point victory in which they allowed 95 Nuggets field-goal attempts but only 30.5 percent shooting.
Mitchell credits that to a team that has played hard and played together since training camp. Martin attributes it to players who care about each other.
“We just knew we had a lot going on,” Martin said about the team’s 2-0 start. “One thing this team has shown since we first stepped foot in here in September is we have each other’s back. No matter the circumstances, we rally around each other. That was one thing we were able to do this past week.”
The Wolves will wear patches on their uniforms that feature a team logo faded behind the name “Flip” front and center. They will wear those patches all season.
“It means a lot, just the unity,” Towns said. “I mean, he’s the one who brought us all here. He has taken us and this organization to a whole other level. Without him, we don’t even stand in this beautiful practice gym.”
The Wolves don’t play again after Monday’s home opener until Thursday’s home game against Miami. Asked if he thinks the team can return to some kind of normalcy after Monday’s video tribute and game, Towns suggested there might not be such a thing for a team that has future Hall of Famer, four accomplished 30-something veterans and consecutive No. 1 overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Towns.
“I think we have so much potential and so much hype, I don’t think it’s ever going to be normal,” Towns said. “You just have to play, just keep playing the way we know how to play as a team and just keep playing hard.”
Point guard Ricky Rubio suggested there will be no normal come Tuesday, Wednesday or next week.
“He’s always going to be in our memories,” Rubio said, “so it’s something we’re going to carry all season long.”