Wednesday night at Target Center, the NBA was what the NBA is supposed to be.
All-Stars of almost unfathomable skill dueled, the Wolves wore purple to honor Prince, manic coaches traded strategic jabs, the crowd rose and ebbed all night, Jevetta Steele performed a stirring anthem and Sheila E. rocked the halftime, earning a standing ovation of her own.
It was ideal downtown Minneapolis entertainment on a night when refuge from the cold, dark winter was appreciated.
The Timberwolves took down Houston 121-111, with Josh Okogie and Karl-Anthony Towns starring before flying to Charlotte, Jeff Teague showing what this team can do with a quality point guard, and Luol Deng turning back the clock.
Long after the game, the Wolves’ coach — his birth name appears to be, let’s see here, “32-year-old interim coach Ryan Saunders” — entered the locker room and handed a wristband to Towns. Towns put it on as the two laughed.
“He’s our captain,” Towns said later of Saunders.
This was a good night to embrace “small sample sizes.”
Analysts use that phrase as an insult. But where would Minnesota sports be without small sample sizes?
Kirby Puckett’s Game 6 was a small sample size. So were Jack Morris’ Game 7 and the Minneapolis Miracle.
Perhaps major decisions shouldn’t be made based on SSSes, but sometimes small windows offer focused views.
Entering this week, the Wolves had lost six of seven, with their only victory coming in overtime at home against a bad Memphis team. As of last weekend, anyone arguing that the team was hopeless would have trouble finding someone with whom to argue.
In the past two games, Teague returned to playing 30-plus minutes, and the Wolves won 10-point decisions over the relentless Clippers and the scary-if-underperforming Rockets.
That sampling and a few conversations led me to these guesses/observations/predictions:
• Saunders is going to remain the coach. The consensus around the team is that owner Glen Taylor likes him and wants him to win the job, so if Saunders can look capable over the rest of the season, don’t be surprised to see him get a three-year deal.
No one can guess what his future holds, but he has leadership and coaching skills. If the Wolves aren’t going to hire Cheryl Reeve, and it appears they are not, then Saunders is the most logical candidate.
Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, is still paying Tom Thibodeau, so the chance to get a rising coach at a reasonable price likely will be too attractive to pass.
• General Manager Scott Layden is likely on his way out and guess who is available? A Taylor favorite — former Wolves player and executive Fred Hoiberg.
Taylor spent big on outside decisionmakers last time around and got burned. Hoiberg would offer Taylor the best of both worlds — someone he’s comfortable with who has gained experience elsewhere.
As an experienced coach, Hoiberg would also be of assistance to Saunders.
• Andrew Wiggins averaged about 37 minutes a game during the Wolves’ horrid seven-game stretch. He missed the past two games because of illness, and they won both.
His absence wasn’t the only variable: Teague and Derrick Rose returned to action as well. But what was most notable about the Wiggins-less games was the dramatically improved ball and player movement on offense and the increased effort on defense.
Wiggins is a proven scorer but he produces by taking lots of shots, most of them difficult two-pointers, and without making those around him better.
The Wolves should bring him off the bench not only to motivate him, but to allow their first unit to play a more free-flowing style. And if he can’t prove himself valuable the rest of the way, the Wolves will have to trade him even if they can’t get value in return.
For all of this season’s upheaval, the Wolves (when healthy) have a good roster, and when Wiggins isn’t in the way, they play like a playoff team.
What happened Wednesday night was a small sample size. It was also a lot of fun, and might have important implications.