NEW YORK – Madison Square Garden’s scoreboard read Timberwolves 95, Knicks 92 after overtime Thursday night, but the real winner might not be known for another eight weeks.
The Wolves and Knicks played for sole ownership of the NBA’s worst record, and the clubhouse lead for best draft-lottery odds that goes along with it.
Neither team, though, played like it had the “T” word — tank — on its mind. Certainly not during a tense finish in which former Wolves guard Alexey Shved forced overtime by making two free throws with seven seconds left in regulation, before the shorthanded Wolves won behind rookie Zach LaVine’s four consecutive free throws in the OT’s final 10.7 seconds.
“Hey man, we don’t look at it like that,” LaVine said. “We look at it as a game and we want to be better than that team so it don’t matter if it’s first or last place, we’re going to play the same way.”
Playing without Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Garnett, Gary Neal and others, the Wolves were so short on players, they had to summon a D League guard just so they could field the eight required by the NBA. But they managed to end a six-game losing streak while also ending an 11-day stretch in which they played seven games in seven cities.
“Listen, we had seven guys playing,” Saunders said, not counting freshly signed Sean Kilpatrick from the Delaware 87ers. “To be able to grind something out, it does say something about the guys playing. They do have a little bit of character.”
LaVine — returning to New York a month after he wowed a Brooklyn crowd in last month’s All-Star slam dunk contest — had 20 points, seven rebounds and four assists, and he made the go-ahead free throws with the pressure thick in a season coach Flip Saunders repeats is all about opportunity and development.
“That’s huge for him,” said teammate Chase Budinger, who played at power forward when he was asked to defend 7-footer Andrea Bargnani. “You never know how a guy reacts to pressure until you get in a situation like that, and all four of his free throws were nothing but the bottom of the net.”
Just one of two healthy Wolves big men, center Gorgui Dieng played 48 of 53 minutes, made nine of 10 field-goal attempts, finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds and also recorded a career-high six blocked shots.
“We’re short on numbers, so everybody has to do extra work,” Dieng said. “It’s good for me. You can only get better on the floor so I got to play a lot of minutes. I try my best not to take it for granted.”
Kilpatrick awoke Thursday thinking his day would offer practice preparation for Friday’s game against the Erie Bayhawks. Instead, he ended up back home in New York City, playing in front of his parents and siblings in an NBA debut after he signed a 10-day contract four hours before game time. Chosen by Saunders as much for his proximity than anything else, he drove 2½ hours in his car and arrived less than an hour before the opening tip.
“We had to go find somebody who was within a train ride away,” said Saunders, who worked Kilpatrick out last summer before the former Cincinnati guard went undrafted and played 42 D League games this season. “No question geography helped.”
Kilpatrick was called because the D League’s Westchester, N.Y., team was out of town. He in turn called his mother and told her to stop getting ready for work Friday and get herself to the Garden instead. His family watched him play 10 minutes in which he focused on defense, because that’s all he knew to do.
“I didn’t think I’d end up here,” he said. “So I mean, it’s kind of a blessing.”