Wolves coach Ryan Saunders had a few players back, but another out sick. He felt it was time to make a change in the starting lineup, but he was forced to make two.
On a snowy Monday, in as much of a must-win game as a team can find this time of year, the Wolves mixed and matched and managed to hold on for a win.
So much happened in Minnesota’s 130-120 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, comeback specialists who had roared back from 20-plus down in three of their past five games. But the important thing: a win.
“Obviously we’re not satisfied with one, but it’s hard to win in this league,’’ said Saunders, whose team was back home after an 0-3 road trip. “We had to scratch out a win. Sometimes you have to dig down.’’
Dig they did. Jeff Teague was available, as was Derrick Rose. Saunders had already decided to make a change in the starting lineup, putting Dario Saric in for Taj Gibson, hoping Saric’s shooting would space the floor, giving Karl-Anthony Towns more room inside.
But, with Andrew Wiggins out sick, Saric and Luol Deng started.
Somehow, it worked.
Deng played a team-high 37:50 and was a game-best plus-28. He scored 12 points with nine rebounds and two steals. Saric shook off early foul trouble to score 19 with eight rebounds. Teague had a 19-point, 10-assist double-double, and Towns had 24 points and 10 boards. Rose had 22 off the bench.
Absolutely all of that was needed against a Clippers team led by Lou Williams, who scored 45 points off the bench.
Down seven with 3:54 left in the first half, the Wolves outscored the Clippers 42-12 over the next 9:47 to go up 87-64 on Gibson’s free throws with 5:53 left in the third. Then Williams took over. Just 1-for-6 with 11 points at that point, Williams made 12 of 19 shots and scored 34 points over the final 17-plus minutes of the game.
His floater with 5:25 left pulled the Clippers within four.
The lead was still four when Gibson scored. Out of a timeout, Towns scored twice and the lead was back to 10.
Against a team percentage points out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference, it was huge. A loss Monday would have put the Wolves six games back of Los Angeles with 26 games to play. Instead the Timberwolves (26-30) are four back of the Clippers (31-27).
All because on Monday, Saric was ready, Gibson was unselfish and Deng was ready.
“It’s no big deal to me,’’ said Gibson, who scored 14 points in 21 minutes. “I’m just doing what it takes to help my team win.’’
Deng? He went from never playing early in the season to a get-out-the-ice 38 minutes filled with strong defense and timely scoring. “Honestly I never lost belief,’’ Deng said. “I made sure I stayed in shape, kept working. To be honest, I didn’t see 38 [minutes]. But I felt I was capable of being productive in this league.’’
The Wolves? They remained poised when the Clippers made their run, executing down the stretch, getting the ball to Towns down low.
“I said it before,’’ Towns said. “When it comes to crunch time I want the ball in my hand. I want to shoot the shots. So I put myself in position, played smart and found a way to make buckets.’’