Defending himself against insinuations he and his players are tanking a season that in many ways already has been lost, Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders told a story last week about how purposely losing games — even for the sake of increasing draft-lottery odds — might only anger the basketball gods.
He cited a game that nobody else might remember in a season many people won’t soon forget: The Washington Wizards’ 82nd and final game in April 2010.
Hired the April before, Saunders witnessed a season in which longtime owner Abe Pollin died in November, players Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton brought guns into the locker room in December and in that incident’s stormy aftermath the Wizards dismantled a team built for the playoffs by trading Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood before the February deadline.
Focused yet again on the draft lottery, the Wizards beat Indiana at home 98-97 on the final day of the 2009-10 season. By doing so, they finished 26-56 and tied Golden State for the NBA’s fourth-worst record rather than tie Sacramento for third worst.
The next day, the Wizards lost a tie-breaking draw with the Warriors and had a 10.3 percent chance to win the No. 1 overall pick. They defied such long odds when they won the draft lottery in May and thus won the right to select Kentucky’s John Wall in June.
Five years later, Saunders says he remembers drawing up a play for a last-second, game-winning shot that brought both victory and Wall. The victory decreased the Wizards’ odds but still brought the draft’s best prospect, all because, according to Saunders, they did the right thing and played to win.
“If we had lost that game, we would have had the third- [most chances] and we wouldn’t have gotten John Wall,” Saunders said.
So the basketball gods reward the righteous?
“I hope so,” he said.
He claimed those gods did so Monday, when the Wolves played with just seven players and still beat in overtime a Jazz team that had won 14 of 19 games before that.
“We’re not tanking games,” Saunders said before repeating himself a time or two.
But his memory is a little fuzzy about that April 14, 2010, game. There was no last-second, game-winning play drawn up. Instead, a former D League guard named Cedric Jackson hit the eventual winning shot on a three-pointer with 91 seconds to play.
“We won,” Saunders said, shrugging his shoulder that the game didn’t end exactly as he remembers it, “and we won.”
Neither team scored again, and the Wizards won on the final night of a season that began with so many expectations and so much possibility.
“It’s maybe not what I signed up for originally when I came,” Saunders told reporters that night. “But as all coaches, you love challenges. Through every adversity, through every challenge, there’s opportunity.”
Saunders coached a second season and 17 games into a third with Washington before he was fired a month into a lockout-shortened season.
Years later, Saunders continues to talk about opportunity. This time, it’s for such players as rookie Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine while Kevin Garnett, Ricky Rubio and others sit out because of sore knees and ankles.
Three times in a week ending Wednesday, the Wolves played overtime games and Saunders reveled in each, smiling and winking at his players when things tightened. They went 2-1 in those games.
“You know what, when you see your players grow, as a coach that’s what you enjoy,” Saunders said. “I thought we saw some of our guys grow in some of those situations and embrace those situations. That’s what you’re looking for.”
Future Hall of Famer Steve Nash said goodbye to a two-time MVP career with a farewell retirement news conference Tuesday.
The occasion caused Wolves coach Flip Saunders to reminisce about Nash’s career and the 1996 draft. Saunders said Nash spent three or four days in Minneapolis that spring and said there was a “pretty good chance” the team would have drafted him fifth overall if it hadn’t swung a trade to acquire Stephon Marbury.
“We really liked him,” Saunders said. “I don’t know if anyone expected him to have the career he had. … Not only was he good, but he kind of revolutionized the point guard position. It became so much more open, with the scoring, the passing, so many pick-and-rolls. He really kind of revolutionized that position.”
Get with the program
Kevin Love’s awkward relationship with LeBron James might have gotten even more so Wednesday when the Cavaliers thumped the Grizzlies and then Love video-bombed James’ postgame one-on-one interview.
He butted in to wish his mother, Karen, a happy birthday, and James didn’t look exactly thrilled as he turned away afterward. In February, James cryptically tweeted about Love, messaging, “Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN.” Love took a step toward that in Wednesday’s game, when he played both inside and outside. He made 10 of 13 shots, took just four three-pointers and had 22 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two blocks.
First time’s the charm
Despite a recent swoon, Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd still has the Bucks aimed at the playoffs. If he gets them there, he’d be the first coach to reach back-to-back playoffs with different teams in his first year with each.
Others who have done it recently back to back: Doc Rivers, Boston in 2013 and L.A. Clippers in 2014; Rick Carlisle, Detroit in 2003 and Indiana in 2004; Larry Brown, Philadelphia in 2003 and Detroit in 2004; Paul Silas, Charlotte in 2002 and New Orleans in 2003, and George Karl in Seattle 1998 and Milwaukee in 1999.
Wolves’ Week Ahead
Sunday: 3 p.m. at New Orleans (FSN)
Monday: 7 p.m. vs. Utah (FSN)
Wednesday: 7 p.m. vs. Toronto (FSN)
Friday: 7 p.m. vs. Orlando (FSN)
Player to watch: Anthony Davis, Pelicans
The man famed for his lone eyebrow also is headed toward the eighth-best Player Efficiency Rating (PER) in NBA history, joining a group led by Wilt Chamberlain and including Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
« If you work at ESPN, you get fired for saying stuff like that. »
— Wolves coach Flip Saunders, livid after his team won at Utah in overtime last week because Jazz broadcasters suggested the Wolves were tanking games to improve draft-lottery probabilities.