SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – Pushing his team to run through the finish line near season’s end rather than just to it, Timberwolves interim coach Sam Mitchell led his players through a lengthy 90-minute morning shootaround before Thursday’s 105-97 victory at Sacramento.
He impressed upon his players to follow Tuesday’s emotional overtime victory over mighty Golden State with another one Thursday against an enigmatic Kings missing star center DeMarcus Cousins, point guard Rajon Rondo and two other rotational players.
That the Wolves did, tying a season-high by making 11 three-pointers. Included were consecutive threes that ended the third quarter and formed the centerpiece of a 13-4 run that in many ways won the game.
“Real big for us,” point guard Tyus Jones said about consecutive victories to start a three-game trip that ends Saturday in Portland. “We wanted to make sure our last win at Golden State wasn’t a fluke and show that we are improving and getting better.”
As it did in leading the Wolves back from Tuesday’s 17-point, third-quarter deficit, the bench again proved to be a determining factor. In Oakland, it was the pulse that Jones provided and Shabazz Muhammad’s career-high 35 points.
In Sacramento, it was back-to-back three-pointers by Jones and fellow reserve Nemanja Bjelica that ended the third quarter and sent the Wolves forward to their 27th victory this season.
Leading by 13 points in the first quarter but by only one late in the third, Jones’ three-pointer with 45 seconds left started the Wolves on that game-changing run. Before the quarter was through, he drove hard to the basket and found Bjelica in the corner for another three-pointer, this one that just beat the quarter buzzer.
Jones’ three was his first since March 11 at Oklahoma City. Between then and Thursday, he had missed 21 consecutive three-pointers.
Asked if he had been keeping track, Jones said: “I wasn’t. I’m almost positive it was in the 20s, though. I don’t want to hear it now. Now it’s behind me, and we have to keep going.”
Bjelica’s buzzer-beating three was his second of four made threes Thursday, a night when he continued to find himself and his game late in a rookie season sidetracked by injuries, a new country and a new league.
He scored 13 of his career-high 18 points off the bench after halftime while starting guard Zach LaVine scored all 18 of his points before halftime.
“I felt good,” Bjelica said. “I was waiting for this game to get my confidence.”
With Cousins, Rondo and two other injured rotational players all out, the Wolves met an opponent they already had beaten the first three times this season and made it a clean series sweep, their first ever over a Sacramento team.
They did so in the last game they will ever play at Sleep Train Arena, where Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell once engaged the Kings in a memorable seven-game, second-round playoff series 12 years ago now.
Promising before the game to “coach hard up until the last game, the last minute, the last second because we’re trying to grow,” Mitchell watched his team regain that 15-point, first-half lead in the fourth quarter and keep it two days after they stunned the Warriors in overtime.
“You want to follow up a good win,” Mitchell said. “There’s a natural tendency when you’re a young team — all people — to let your guard down and become complacent when you have a little success. … We didn’t play a perfect game, but we did enough to grind out a win on the road.”