One of the last players to leave the locker room after the Wolves lost to the Clippers Monday was guard Gary Neal. He was moving slowly for a reason. With Kevin Martin out, Neal, in his fifth season, had played a career-high 40 minutes and 40 seconds.
Neal scored 19 points with nine rebounds and four assists. And while he struggled at times with his shot — he was 6-for-17 from the field — his aggressive play got him to the line six times, where he made five. More and more, Neal, 30, is looking like what Flip Saunders has insisted he was when he was acquired in a trade Feb. 10 — a part of the team’s future.
“We traded for him and everybody — all the experts — thought we were going to buy him out,” Saunders said in his postgame comments Monday. “And I said we weren’t. We traded for him. We thought he was a good player and we thought he might have a future. We thought we’d bring him in, let him play with our guys and see how he would blend in.”
Neal began his career in San Antonio, where he was a backup on a perennial playoff contender. It is that experience Saunders hopes he can impart to the Wolves players.
“He’s a good shooter,” Saunders said.
“He knows how to play, he’s strong.”
The deadline to buy players out has passed. After the game Neal was asked if he was happy with the Wolves.
“I’m a basketball player and Flip has given me an opportunity to come in here and play,” said Neal, who will be a free agent after the season. “I don’t have any complaints. The way the team is set up, with K-Mart being out tonight, your role can change from day to day. All you ask for is an opportunity to come in and play, and Flip has been fair with me on that.”
For the first time in eight games, rookie Zach LaVine scored in double figures Monday, getting 14 points on 5-for-9 shooting.
One reason was the amount of time he was able to play the off-guard position, particularly with Ricky Rubio on the floor with him. “There is no question he is more comfortable when he can get out and run, play more downhill offensively, which is when he’s at his best,” Saunders said.
The Wolves have been pushing LaVine to be more aggressive all season, wanting him to attack the rim more. He did that a good bit Tuesday, though many of his points came in transition.
“I thought he was fouled a couple times and didn’t get a call,” Saunders said.
“Sometimes he jumps so high I don’t think the refs can see the contact. It’s a process with him.”
No question the star of Monday’s game was Clippers guard Chris Paul, who finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds.
But, while Paul did hit the game-sealing shot late in the fourth quarter, the Wolves did a much better job defending him in the second half. Much of that credit goes to Andrew Wiggins. After getting 19 points (on 9-for-12 shooting) with nine assists in the first half, Paul scored just seven points on 3-for-8 shooting in the second.
It wasn’t all Wiggins.
The Wolves in general had a hard time defending him in the pick and roll early on, especially center Gorgui Dieng, who struggled to know when to pressure Paul and when to lay back. The Wolves changed their strategy, trying more to corral Paul in the second half.
“That gave Wiggins a chance to catch up,” Saunders said. “But [Wiggins] did a good job.’’