When you think about the Timberwolves’ 116-109 victory over Miami at Target Center — a victory that pushed the Wolves to a 3-0 start, the team’s best since 2013-14 — the first thing that comes to mind is Andrew Wiggins’ 11-point outburst over a span of 107 seconds late in the game that turned the tide.
Which is fine.
But it may have been the play of Jeff Teague that set the table for Wiggins’ heroics, a spurt of his own coming earlier in the quarter that kept the game from getting out of hand and kept the Wolves within striking distance until Wiggins lit the afterburners.
“We were just down,” Teague said. “We were just trying to make something go. I was like, ‘We just got to get to the basket, get something going at the rim.’ … I was trying to be aggressive.”
Wiggins finished with 25 points, 16 in the fourth quarter on 5-for-7 shooting, including four three-pointers.
But Teague was right behind him, scoring 12 of his 21 points in the fourth, hitting all three of his shots, including a three-pointer, and all five free throws. It was a nice complement to Wiggins’ surge and the overall strong play of Karl-Anthony Towns, who on Monday was named Western Conference player of the week after averaging 32 points and 13.3 rebounds during the 3-0 start.
Teague is still, essentially, in his own version of extended training camp. The veteran guard was slowed by ankle and foot injuries last year, limited to 42 games, with surgery on his ankle coming in April.
He didn’t do anything basketball-related all summer, which meant a lot of rust coming into the fall; at one point he said he didn’t know if the ankle would ever be 100% again. Add to that the fact Teague is the veteran among a group of relatively young starters, on a team with a revamped roster, trying to lead the team determined to change its offensive style with a faster-paced, three-point-centric approach.
That’s a lot.
“I’m still learning,” Teague said. “I’m still trying to get it together. As a group, we’re making an adjustment. For me, playing in a couple different systems now? It’s fun. Another opportunity.”
One bit of continuity throughout Teague’s time here: the Wolves are better when he is on the court. They are 67-47 when Teague is in the starting lineup since he arrived for the 2017-18 season, and they are 19-34 when he isn’t.
The latest victory Sunday came after a strong start for the Wolves had devolved into a deficit against the Heat who, even without Jimmy Butler, were out-hustling the home team.
Teague entered the game for the last time with 9 minutes, 53 seconds left and the Wolves down seven. Coach Ryan Saunders paired Teague and his usual backup at the point, Shabazz Napier, a move that Teague said allowed him to get more aggressive.
Moments later, Teague hesitated in the lane, hit a 9-foot floater, was fouled and made the free throw. After Miami scored, Teague drove and scored again with 8:09 left. Noah Vonleh — who also was instrumental in keeping the Wolves close, going 4-for-4 from the field for eight points — scored moments later to keep the Wolves within four. Then with 6:25 left and the shot clock winding down, Teague calmly hit a 26-foot three-pointer from the top of the key to make it a one-point game.
Wiggins then proceeded to score 16 points in a 17-6 run that enabled the Wolves to take over. Teague followed with four free throws down the stretch.
“He came up big in the end,” Saunders said. “He’s the guy that was making free throws for us, too. I like that in his game. He controlled things for us, eight assists, one turnover, and then 21 points.”
A lot of things have to happen for this early success to continue. Towns has to stay dominant. Wiggins has to avoid going dormant. Robert Covington has to stay healthy.
Ditto for Teague. During the home-opening fanfare, Wolves players ran onto the court one by one during the introductions, past two huge sparklers. Sparklers that, at times, appeared a bit close; when Teague was introduced he actually ducked while running to the court.
“I was afraid for my hair,” he said.
Safe to say though that, when it mattered most, Teague was hot.
“I was just being aggressive,” he said. “Just trying to make the right play. KAT’s been carrying us these first two games. He’s been unbelievable. So we needed to help him out a little bit.”
• The Wolves assigned forward Keita Bates-Diop, guard Jaylen Nowell and center Naz Reid to the G League Iowa Wolves and also sent two-way players Kelan Martin and Jordan McLaughlin to Iowa.