The Wild and Timberwolves both had 7 p.m. starts, while the Gophers men’s basketball team tipped off at 8. All three were home games. All three carried varying levels of intrigue. In order: Wild vs. Blackhawks easily No. 1, Gophers vs. Hawkeyes No. 2 and Timberwolves vs. Raptors No. 3.
A normal person might have picked one of the games to watch — either in person or on TV — and kept tabs on the other two before heading to bed at a somewhat reasonable hour. If you’ve been reading anything I’ve written for the last decade, though, you know that I’m not normal.
So I watched the Wild game while recording the other two. But I had to pause the Wild game to get our 2-year-old to sleep. That’s a project more daunting most nights than trying to lock down the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. By the time things were re-settled, there was the third period of the Wild game plus most of two full basketball games to get through — all while managing to stay off of the Internet/social media as to avoid finding out the scores of any of the games.
Usually this type of sports gluttony with Minnesota teams leads to sports indigestion or at least regret. Wednesday was the rare night when all three games were worth watching, even if it meant speeding through parts of them (and still sacrificing some sleep).
With that as a windup, here are five thoughts from one of the best nights of local sports watching in recent memory — two games that went into overtime (one double OT) and a third that was tied in the final minute.
1) The Wild is the only one of the three that lost, and yet it still felt like at least half of a win. Most of that was because of the great late goal in regulation by Erik Haula that ensured Minnesota would get at least one point and keep Chicago from gaining much ground in the standings. Part of it, though, was the tone set by head coach Bruce Boudreau in his approach to the game.
Starting goalie Devan Dubnyk the night before in Winnipeg (in a victory) and giving backup Darcy Kuemper the Chicago game was a savvy tactical move. It signaled that the Wild wasn’t over-emphasizing a regular-season game, even if it was against a division rival. And it set up a scenario whereby the Wild could feel good even in a loss. Win with a backup goalie? Great! Lose with a backup goalie? Hey, wait until Dubnyk plays next time.
Here’s where Boudreau’s experience is a huge asset. Even as Chicago tried to build up the game as its biggest of the season as it tries to catch the Wild in the standings, Boudreau called the bluff. “They’re lying, they’re lying. They’re just trying to make us feel good,” the Wild coach said. Exactly. By not getting caught up in that and still playing a good game (and earning a point), the Wild can push forward without feeling any sort of letdown.
2) It was fascinating to see Lance Stephenson, with the ink barely dry on his 10-day contract, get crunch time minutes for the Wolves in their 112-109 victory over the Raptors. He played 20 minutes total — including the entire fourth quarter — offering a glimpse of what the Wolves have perhaps been missing and also what they might look like in the future with a deeper bench full of more veterans.
Stephenson, though only 26, is in his seventh NBA season. He has the size, strength and quickness (at 6-5, 230 pounds) to be a solid wing defender. More than that, Stephenson can play with the sort of savvy coach Tom Thibodeau has probably been craving during a season of developing a bunch of 20-to-22-year-olds. Much is made of the young Wolves core of starters, but most of the bench players who have logged the heaviest minutes this season (Shabazz Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica and Kris Dunn) are relative newcomers in the NBA as well. This season has largely been about development; in upcoming seasons, one would expect the Wolves to strengthen their bench with veterans like Stephenson.
3) Another interesting development: Tyus Jones played the entire fourth quarter at point guard and got more minutes overall (27 vs. 21) than starter Ricky Rubio. Jones ran an offense that scored on its final seven possessions (six real ones and a desperation foul late by the Raptors) and he hit the key go-ahead three-pointer with 19 seconds left. Jones keeps making a push for more playing time, and it sounds like he’s making a believer out of Thibodeau. It will be interesting to see what happens when Dunn is healthy again.
4) In Richard Pitino’s first season with the Gophers in 2013-14, Minnesota was probably one win away from making the NCAA tourney. The loss everyone pointed to at the end of the year was a 55-54 home loss to Northwestern in early February.
When the Gophers look back upon this year’s regular season, they will see something different in early February: the game that got them into the tournament. It happened Wednesday in a double-OT escape against Iowa at Williams Arena. A loss would have created a much thinner margin for error down the stretch of the season.
The win propped up their RPI (now 22, third in the Big Ten), while their strength of schedule is No. 17. And 5-6 in the Big Ten sounds a whole lot better than 4-7. Looking at Minnesota’s schedule, the path to a 9-9 conference finish looks pretty reasonable — and that mark would be plenty good this year for a secure tourney bid.
5) All three home teams received favorable calls that significantly impacted the outcomes of each game.
The Wild benefited from a bizarre non-overturn of Zach Parise’s tying goal in the second period, where Parise was clearly off-side. Then after the Hawks went ahead again, Haula’s tying goal late in the third was aided by clear interference by Eric Staal at the blue line that also went uncalled.
The Gophers probably lose without a bad late call on a jump ball that went against Iowa with the Hawkeyes leading by 2 and trying to run out the clock.
DeMar DeRozan was fouled by both Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins while making a game-tying layup with 29 seconds left for the Raptors. No foul was called, denying Toronto a chance to go ahead on a three-point play.
Remember these moments the next time you think Minnesota never gets any calls. All three home teams got big ones Wednesday night, helping turn what could have been three close losses into two wins and a key point for the Wild.