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Sid Hartman

Sid Hartman brings you the latest on Twin Cities sports.

Timberwolves GM Scott Layden gains power as Ryan Saunders takes over as coach

You can bet it was tough for Scott Layden when the Timberwolves general manager had to tell coach Tom Thibodeau that he was being fired on Sunday night.

The Wolves had just beaten the Los Angeles Lakers and reached the halfway point of the season when the shocking news came down.

“Sometimes decisions are made, the timing is not always perfect,” Layden said. “We try to do things in a respectful, professional manner. We obviously have the utmost respect for Coach Thibs, and hopefully we handled things the best we could.

“We've had a very long relationship and have known Tom for a long time. And have nothing but the ultimate respect for him and his work.”

Layden came to Minnesota at the same time Thibodeau was named President of Basketball Operations and head coach, in April of 2016. Thibodeau had all the power over the basketball side, but when owner Glen Taylor decided to make a change Sunday, Layden’s role changed dramatically.

Now he will call the shots, with 32-year-old Ryan Saunders taking over as head coach.

I believe Thibodeau was a very good basketball coach, but the Jimmy Butler situation did not make him look good and with the team struggling to play .500 basketball and attendance among the worst in the NBA, Taylor had to make the change.

“Coach Thibs is an excellent coach,” Layden said. “He's someone that is unbelievably committed. He's an unbelievable hard worker. I just can't thank him enough for helping our organization.”

It’s no secret that I am very close to the Saunders family. I knew the late Flip Saunders from the time he played for the Gophers in the 1970s, and I’ve known Ryan since he was a little kid. Putting all that aside, I believe Ryan Saunders will relate better to the younger players and, believe me, there’s no question he is a very capable coach. This stage will not be too big for him.

“It's in his DNA,” Layden said. “It's something that certainly that he's planned for his whole life. I look forward to his success and how he does. One of the things is that we know Ryan is a high character guy and a hard worker. Someone that is going to have the best interests of the Minnesota Timberwolves in his heart.”

Everyone knows the Timberwolves have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot. The challenge now for Saunders and Layden is making sure the players live up to their potential and get back in the playoff race.

Hartman: 'Win and in' is Zimmer's focus

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer knows the importance of today’s game against the Bears – if the Vikings win, they make the playoffs.  If they lose, they have to hope Philadelphia – the defending Super Bowl champion playing an undermanned Redskins team – also loses.

Zimmer does not intend to watch the scoreboard.  His motto this week is “win and in” and backing into the playoffs, believe me, has not entered his mind.

The Vikings put themselves in good position by beating Miami at home and Detroit on the road, with the offense showing some positive signs under interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski.

“We started out slow last week, but we got going again,” said Zimmer, who is clearly happier that the Vikings’ run game has improved. “Kind of wearing guys down. We've got to continue to do a good job with that. Starting fast. We've got to do a better job on third downs and red zone when we get in there.”

One of the keys for the Vikings is the play of rookie offensive tackle Brian O’Neill, who has not allowed a sack this season. When the Vikings took him in the second round out of Pittsburgh, he was considered a project. But he has developed quickly.

“He's been playing better and better,” Zimmer said. “He'll have a big test this week. They've got a couple of really good rushers. (Leonard) Floyd and (Khalil) Mack. It will be a good test for him this week.”

Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs haven’t been as productive as they were early in the season, but the receivers are drawing extra attention and focusing on establishing the run has probably cost them catches.

“Each game is a little bit different,” Zimmer said. “You get some kind of coverage for them. But not all the time.”

When I responded that the two hadn’t been as good the past couple of weeks, Zimmer gave me a pretty good line: “There’s only one ball to go around. We threw the ball nine times to Rudolph [against Detroit]. We ran the ball 28 times. Threw it 28 times. That's just part of the deal.”

The Vikings will have some interesting offseason decisions to make, including one on Anthony Barr, who was the subject of a great story today by Mark Craig.

I don't think the Vikings will lack focus today. They know what they have to do.

My big concern is that Akiem Hicks and Khalil Mack did a lot of damage to the Vikings in the Bears’ 25-20 victory in Chicago on Nov. 18, and Zimmer will have to figure out how to limit that damage today.

“They're two, very, very good players,” Zimmer said. “(Eddie) Goldman, their nose tackle, is very good. Leonard Floyd is a very athletic guy. Roquan Smith, a linebacker, is very, very athletic and they do a great job on the back end.”

Asked if the Vikings intend to grind it out on the ground, Zimmer said, “We're going to do what we have to do to win. If that's throw it, we're going to throw it. We have to have the threat of the run for sure.”

The Vikings have beaten the Bears six consecutive times in Minneapolis.

“Hey, we’re just trying to get the one this week,” Zimmer said.