Ryan Saunders approached forward Taj Gibson before Monday’s game about starting Dario Saric in his place. Saunders, in Gibson’s view, looked like he was anticipating a difficult conversation.
It took a turn the Timberwolves interim coach wasn’t expecting.
“I guess he thought it was going to be an awkward conversation,” Gibson said. “And when he said it to me, I said, ‘Nah. It’s no big deal.’ Then we just started laughing.”
“Then we hugged it out,” Saunders said.
There are some players who might perceive Saunders’ move as a demotion and not take it well, but Gibson isn’t one of those. When Saric came to the Wolves from Philadelphia as part of the Jimmy Butler deal, Gibson put to rest any potential controversy by saying he would accept whatever role the Wolves had for him.
Former head coach Tom Thibodeau kept Gibson in the starting lineup, but his professionalism helped Saunders the first time he had to have this talk with one of his players.
“I knew if there was anybody who would handle a conversation like that in a professional manner, it would be Taj,” Saunders said. “But I’m realistic, too, where you understand it takes a lot for somebody to truly give themselves up for the team.”
For Gibson, the shift from starter to reserve is nothing new. He spent a large portion of his career coming off the bench when he was in Chicago.
“I’ve done it my whole career, so I know how to come in, insert myself into the game right away,” Gibson said. “Ryan does a good job of running the right kind of plays, my teammates are looking for me. Just being assertive so when I come in the game, come in with a big burst of energy and it was easy for me, really.”
Gibson’s first shift off the bench came a little earlier than expected when Saric picked up two quick fouls only 1 minute, 37 seconds into Monday’s 130-120 victory over the Clippers at Target Center. But Gibson was quick to make his presence known, scoring 14 points on 5-for-5 shooting to help the Wolves erase an early deficit.
The way Gibson handled the change comes as no surprise to Luol Deng, who also was a teammate of Gibson’s in Chicago.
“The one thing about Taj is he’s one of the best teammates … ” Deng said. “You’re going to get the same Taj every night. It never changes. It’s always the same guy in terms of energy and trying to just win the game.”
On the other side of the move is Saric, who started every game for the Sixers before coming to Minnesota. He finished with 19 points and eight rebounds in 33 minutes, his second-highest scoring total since joining the Wolves. Gibson played 21 minutes.
“We have [a] great teammate, good person, who is really here to help the team,” Saric said of Gibson.
Saunders said he doesn’t want to “yo-yo” players in and out of the starting lineup, so he expects Saric to start for at least a little while going forward. Saric’s teammate in Philadelphia, Robert Covington, suspected the move might be positive for Saric.
“He’s been a starter his whole career, and it gives him a better feel for the game,” Covington said. “Coming off the bench, he hasn’t been used to that. It was an adjustment for him in the beginning. I think it’ll help getting in a rhythm early.”
Gibson’s sacrifice could be Saric’s gain, and perhaps the Wolves as a whole will benefit from it.
“The guy is one of the best pros to walk on the court as a basketball player and as a teammate, one of the best the NBA has ever offered,” center Karl-Anthony Towns said about Gibson.
“We’re very fortunate we have him. It speaks a lot when you have a guy like that, who doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t give you a why, it’s whatever you guys need and whatever you want, I’m willing to do.”