With under five minutes remaining in the Timberwolves 111-108 loss to the Spurs, the Wolves and San Antonio were tied 99-99.
The Wolves had the ball with a chance to take the lead, and they would have multiple possessions to tie or take the lead the rest of the way — and D'Angelo Russell wanted to be the guy to do that on most possessions.
Russell took six shots in the final five minutes. He made two, and hit one of two free throws for five points in those final five minutes. This is what the Wolves paid Russell to come and do. It's why he is earning a maximum contract and with Karl-Anthony Towns out, he is, on a night to night basis, supposed to be their most dangerous offensive weapon.
Russell seems to know that, and said as much when asked to explain his thought process late in the game when he took more shots instead of trying to set up teammates.
"I feel like throughout the game I'm being less aggressive, trying to get guys involved, get guys confidence and a rhythm going for them," Russell said. "Toward the end of the game I try to be more aggressive so win or lose I'll take that. I'll take that fault win or lose with me being aggressive at the end of the game."
When Karl-Anthony Towns returns the dynamics of late-game situations will change for the Wolves, but it was hard not to notice that two of the Wolves' most effective scorers didn't get much of a chance with Russell trying to win the game each possession.
Malik Beasley, who was 12 of 18 on the night, had two shots in the final five minutes, and despite hitting four three-pointers, he didn't attempt one in that stretch. Anthony Edwards, who has shown the potential to take over games, didn't have a shot in the fourth quarter and had no assists despite playing 7:13.
Beasley was asked how difficult it could be for a player like him to get the ball in those situations, since Beasley is a player who thrives on playing off the ball. Here was his full answer:
"That's out of my control. I can control what I can control. I don't get the ball coming up the court, as point guards do," Beasley said. "I get most of my adjustments and things off-ball. Coming off pindowns, backdoors, things like that. Get running in transition. I don't worry about shots. I've known how to play without the ball since I was in high school. I played with a lot of star players. I know how to play without the ball. That helps me out.
"But I'm not worried about any of that, man. It's about the win. We were up 11 in the fourth quarter. We got to come out with that."
Saunders was also asked about creating opportunities for Beasley and Edwards and said he has to improve in that respect.
"I got to do a better job there. We all gotta do a better job in that situation, especially in the flow of it. In the flow a lot of times, it's going to be on … especially when action's going on and you don't get something in transition, we're going to have to
get organized on the court. That takes us time to know that. We've got to get better flow right there."
Again, Towns' return will change these dynamics, but the Wolves are paying Russell a lot of money to be the guy with the ball in his hands in those situations — and as a center Towns won't be dictating the offense the way Russell does. Russell's ultimately going to be the one who makes the decision to shoot or pass. For better or for worse.