Shortly after the Timberwolves’ 119-117 victory in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Timberwolves interim coach Ryan Saunders got a phone call from Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor.
“He and his wife Becky called,” Saunders said, “They called while I was in the locker room in the coaches office. It was a special conversation.”
Saunders has had a long relationship with Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune.
“Our family goes way back with their family,” Saunders said. “He’s been around for a lot of big moments of impact in my life. Which I like to think are the moments that either change you for the worse or strengthen you. He was there when my father passed. He was there at my wedding. Some big moments.”
It had been a whirlwind 48 hours for Saunders. Shortly after leaving Target Center after the Timberwolves’ 108-86 victory over the Lakers on Sunday, he was asked to come back to the arena.
On Monday he ran his first practice as interim coach before the team flew to Oklahoma City.
Asked how he prepared for the game, Saunders said, “With not a lot of sleep, coffee and not a ton of food. There wasn’t much time to do anything other than prepare. Really just trying to dive into the work. And talking to the team, to meet with the players and get their thoughts on things.”
Saunders, 32, who has been an NBA assistant coach since 2009, praised the play of Andrew Wiggins, who had 40 points and 10 rebounds, and Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 20 points and nine rebounds in the victory over the Thunder.
“He [Wiggins] was unbelievable [Tuesday],” Saunders said. “He always seems to play well down in Oklahoma City. I think he was just very focused last night at the task at hand. Towns is, obviously, a great player. He’s gotten better and better with his work ethic. It’s impossible not to improve with the way he works.”
Between Sunday night and Tuesday’s game, Saunders had a one-on-one meeting with each of the players and with the team as a group.
“It was more just listening to them,” Saunders said, “Or just telling them I want to have an open-door policy in terms of if anybody has any concerns with things. Obviously keeping things within the family.”
Saunders doesn’t expect any dramatic changes and said he will lean on his assistants.
“I think when it comes to playing faster, you have to play with more bodies at times,” Saunders said. “So guys might not be in there quite as long. It will vary from night to night some. I’m thinking some will be based on feel, a lot will be based on preparation. But some will be based on feel.
“I need to use the coaches. I have great knowledge around me. All these coaches have played in the NBA or been in the NBA for a long time. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how much I need to use them.”
On Monday, Saunders said one thing he learned from his father, former Wolves coach and executive Flip Saunders, stands out:
“I could list so many things I learned from him. But I think the biggest thing I learned from him was to just be myself, and that’s what I will continue to do.”
Tom Thibodeau’s fate as the Timberwolves coach probably was sealed Dec. 28, after the Timberwolves lost 123-120 in overtime at home to Atlanta.
In an interview with WCCO radio two days later, Taylor admitted he was upset by the loss.
“This is one, the other team did not beat us, we beat ourselves,” Taylor said. “… Each of these games is so important. Because you think about how we won last year, the last game of the year, we had to beat [Denver] to get into the playoffs.”
Taylor said a playoff bid could go down to the wire again this season.
“We see it kind of happening again this year, where we’re going to have a bunch of teams that are going to be really close to getting into the playoffs or not, missing it by a game or two,” Taylor said.
There is no doubt Taylor and Thibodeau weren’t on the same page since the day Jimmy Butler demanded to be traded.
I talked to Thibodeau following the Wolves’ victory over the Lakers, the last media member to interview him Sunday. Shortly after our visit, he was informed he had been dismissed. When we talked, he was unaware the decision to fire him had been made in a meeting before the game.
During the one-on-one interview with me, Thibodeau was excited about the Wolves’ progress. Thibodeau sang the praises of Towns and Wiggins and was convinced the team was on a roll.
A Madison double
The Gophers football and men’s basketball teams both won in Madison this school year for the first time since 1972-73, when Richard Nixon was president.
The Gophers ended that 45-year drought last week when the basketball team beat the Badgers 59-52 in Madison for the time since 2009. In November, the Gophers football team ended an 14-game losing streak to the Badgers when they won at Camp Randall Stadium for the first time since 1994.
In 1972, the Gophers were in their first season under football coach Cal Stoll. They had opened the season 0-5 and were 1-7 after eight games, but they won their final three games to finish 4-7. In their season finale on Nov. 25, they beat the John Jardine-coached Badgers 14-6 in Madison for their only road victory of the season.
During the 1972-73 basketball season, the Gophers — in their second season under coach Bill Musselman, defeated the Badgers, coached by John Powless, 81-64 on Jan. 29. The Gophers finished the season with a 21-5 record and were the Big Ten runner-up (10-4).
U baseball hits road
Last year, the Gophers baseball team played 13 games in the Vikings’ home, U.S. Bank Stadium. With the facility playing host to the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four in April, the Gophers won’t be able to use the stadium this spring.
The Gophers will play their first 21 games on the road before playing their home opener March 29, against Nebraska at Siebert Field.
Before that, the Gophers will play four games in Surprise, Ariz.; three in Dallas; three in Raleigh, N.C.; four in Seattle and four in California — three games in Long Beach and one in Malibu — and three in State College, Pa.