Zach LaVine has worked hard. Before practices and after, and late at night, on his own, in the Timberwolves practice facility trying to pull himself out of a seven-game slide.
Tuesday night at Target Center the Wolves lost again, ending an 0-for-4 homestand with a 101-96 loss to Oklahoma City. It was the team’s seventh consecutive loss, its 11th in 12 games. But it was hard not to come away feeling there was a silver lining this time.
In the end, the one-two punch of Kevin Durant (30 points) and Russell Westbrook (22 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds) was too much for the young Wolves, who have been using the Thunder as a blueprint for their own rebuilding program.
But along the way LaVine rediscovered his shooting touch and, along with Shabazz Muhammad, showed that the young Wolves may be figuring things out.
LaVine scored 21 points with nine rebounds and four assists. Muhammad, showing again that he deserves more playing time, scored 20. They led a Wolves bench that scored 55 points and had interim coach Sam Mitchell calling LaVine’s game his best of the season.
“Zach just ran the team in the second half,” Mitchell said of LaVine, who scored 13 of his points in the fourth quarter as the Wolves outscored the Thunder 30-21 over the final 12 minutes. “He slowed down, was patient, found his rhythm shooting the ball.”
Down 15 with 8:32 left in the game, LaVine had eight points in a 15-3 run over the next five minutes as the Wolves pulled within three on Andrew Wiggins’ put-back dunk with 3:15 left.
At that point, after having struggled a bit through three quarters, Durant took over, hitting all four jumpers and all four free throws he took down the stretch, scoring the Thunder’s final 12 points and keeping the Wolves from finishing the comeback.
But the Wolves showed more energy Tuesday than they had in a while. Wiggins had 22, 16 in the second half. Karl-Anthony Towns had 14 points and 10 rebounds.
But the feel-good story was LaVine.
“Took long enough,” he said. “As many shots as I’ve taken, this should have happened three, four games ago.”
By his own admission Mitchell has been hard on LaVine, who has moved between shooting guard and the point more than a few times this season. Especially lately. But he did it with a reason. “I had a conversation with him this morning,” Mitchell said. “I told him, just focus on running the team, playing defense. Everything else will come.”
Mitchell recounted stories of how hard he was on a young Jose Calderon in Toronto, how hard San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was on a young Tony Parker. “These guys have to be tough-minded,” Mitchell. “When [LaVine] gets through this, he’ll be a much better player. He’ll have gone through fire. He’ll be tried and tested. That’s how point guards are made.”
And how has that process been for LaVine? “Not fun,” he said. “Sometimes unfair. But he’s the coach. I’m playing. That’s what you have to deal with. You can’t do anything but play good on the court. That’s my voice, on the court. … Either way, every situation gets you better. You just have to take it as a positive whether you agree with it or not. I’ll go forward from there.”
Perhaps the Wolves will, too. After being outplayed in the first half, the Wolves cut down on the turnovers and turned up their defense in the second half. Despite the loss, there were some good signs.
“Everybody played well for us tonight,” Muhammad said.