OKLAHOMA CITY – Sam Mitchell warned his young team Friday morning about a knockout punch coming their way early during that evening’s game at Oklahoma City, but it was his Timberwolves who delivered a haymaker that floored the Thunder at the end of a 99-96 victory.
Ricky Rubio, the point guard who struggles with his shot, hit a three-pointer with two-tenths of a second remaining to stun another sellout Chesapeake Energy Arena audience into stone silence. The shot brought the Wolves their first victory there since Mike Miller’s winning shot beat the Thunder on Thanksgiving weekend 2008.
Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine were all 13 years old then. They were still in high school the last time the Wolves beat Oklahoma City anywhere at all, which was Nov. 1, 2013, at Target Center.
“It means everything,” Towns said of his team’s 21st victory in 66 games.
Friday morning, Mitchell told his players the Thunder would hit them hard early with Wednesday’s home victory over the Clippers behind it and a Saturday night game at San Antonio looming. Friday night, the Wolves, at teammate Damjan Rudez’s urging, serenaded Rubio with the Spanish sporting chant “ole, ole, ole” while Towns walked from the shower on the campaign trail, repeating “Rubio for President.”
Funny, but just hours earlier Thunder coach Billy Donovan, in a slip of the tongue, referred to the Wolves starting point guard as Marco Rubio, the Florida senator and U.S. presidential candidate.
“It’s good when you win,” Rubio said, “and it’s always good to hear your teammates chanting for you.”
After the Wolves led by 13 points late in the first quarter and trailed by four with 2 ½ minutes left, Towns’ fadeaway floater put the Wolves ahead 96-94 with 16 seconds left. Steven Adams answered right back, tying the score five seconds later on a putback basket.
That left the Wolves with a timeout, the ball and a pick-and-roll play that Towns and Wiggins worked on one side of the floor. Wiggins slashed to the basket, but when three and maybe four defenders converged, he spotted Rubio wide open beyond the three-point line.
“It opened up,” Wiggins said of his drive, stretching his hands apart before snapping them back together, “and then it closed real quick.”
Rubio caught the ball and shot it without hesitation. He reacted without emotion when it went through the net.
“I’ve been working on the shot a lot,” Rubio said. “I feel more confident lately. Hard work pays off.”
Meanwhile, Mitchell struck a karate pose and punched the air while his players celebrated.
“I was in the air before he shot it,” said Gorgui Dieng, whose 25-point, nine-rebound night despite foul trouble positioned Wiggins and Rubio to win the game. “I started jumping. I’ve been playing with Ricky long enough.”
Rubio’s shot was the 26th time in franchise history they’ve won a game on a last-second shot. It was the fifth time the winner was a three-pointer and the first time since Kevin Love’s walk-off three in Los Angeles over the Clippers in 2012.
“We’re growing up and we’re learning to play as a team,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been talking about this: We’ve got to start competing better against some of the Western Conference better teams. I’m just proud of our guys.”
It might have been one small step forward, but Towns said he can see the way.
“We’re on a path to greatness,” he said.