NEW YORK – With 14.5 seconds left and the Timberwolves needing to make a final stand in overtime Wednesday night at Brooklyn, coach Ryan Saunders turned to Josh Okogie and told him to check in. His assignment was easy to grasp but would be much harder to complete successfully: guard Kyrie Irving.
Everyone in Barclays Center knew Irving was going to try to win the game for the Nets.
Okogie didn’t flinch. According to Saunders, Okogie’s reply on the bench was, “You got it, Coach.”
“That’s his reaction because that’s the type of competitor he is,” Saunders said. “I knew that Kyrie, if he had the ball, he was hopefully not going to get an easy look. I knew Josh was going to try to make it tough, and if Josh was in there making it tough and he makes the shot, you tip your cap to him.”
Their caps stayed on their heads.
It was one-on-one, Okogie vs. Irving.
“He had 50 points,” Okogie said, “but luckily he was able to miss the shot and we were able to get the win.”
Okogie made it hard for Irving, who lost the ball before taking the shot. He gathered the ball again and did get up a jumper, but it missed and the Wolves won 127-126 in their first game of the season.
“If there was a cheetah out there and we said, ‘Josh go get him,’ I have more faith in Josh beating the cheetah,” center Karl-Anthony Towns said.
Sometimes it looks like Okogie, the personification of a rocket booster, is moving that fast. He has vowed to play more under control this season instead of only being a ball of energy with little sense of direction, and the Wolves needed some direction during a rocky third quarter in which they saw their 12-point halftime lead evaporate.
Okogie looked under control and in command. He checked in for Andrew Wiggins late in the third quarter and scored five points, coupled with a steal, to keep the Nets from pulling away entering the fourth.
“He was the sparkplug for us right there. His energy and the way he pushed us through that,” Saunders said. “He let us catch our breath a little bit.”
For the game, Okogie finished with 11 points, three rebounds, three assists and a steal. He went to the free throw line eight times and was a team-high plus-22 — meaning the Wolves outscored the Nets by that many points when he was on the court — in just 14 minutes of game action. All five Wolves reserves were on the plus side of that stat, while all five Nets reserves were minus players — a big factor in the final outcome.
And at the very end, Okogie helped everyone exhale as they held their breath on Irving’s final shot. Okogie wasn’t in the game until that time, coming in off the bench cold to guard Irving. Forward Robert Covington said he urged Saunders to put in Okogie, along with Noah Vonleh and Jake Layman.
“I’m like, ‘Just trust, put Josh in,’ ” Covington said. “And that’s the type of relationship that me and Ryan have. So, we made the adjustment, and Josh did his job.”
Okogie said all he was trying to do was make it difficult on Irving. The Nets cleared out and Irving had a lot of room to operate. The Wolves didn’t help off any other Brooklyn player
“It was tough, but I did it last year, and I was always guarding the best defender last year,” Okogie said. “It wasn’t something I wasn’t prepared for. … It’s just instinct and determination.”
Both came through in those final moments.