OKLAHOMA CITY – The lasting memory will be the overwhelming emotion of the moment: Timberwolves interim head coach Ryan Saunders pumping his fist into the air as the final seconds ticked down in his team’s 119-117 road victory over Oklahoma City. The raucous celebration in the locker room afterward as the players drenched their new head coach after he’d won his first NBA game. The intensity of the game, already fierce, amped up by an inadvertent injury to Thunder center Nerlens Noel and a shoving match between guards Jeff Teague of the Wolves and Dennis Schroder of the Thunder.
But what was perhaps most impressive was Saunders’ composure.
In his first game, he was forced to deal with a difficult road crowd, foul trouble for starting center Karl-Anthony Towns, the need to juggle rotations to compensate for that foul trouble and a roster shortened by injuries to Robert Covington and Derrick Rose, and the task of keeping his team poised down the stretch of a back-and-forth game.
Afterward, Towns put it best. In Game 1, Saunders showed an entire repertoire of coaching ability.
“He just kept making the right moves,” Towns said. “He played chess all night and came out with a checkmate. We wanted it so bad for him. All we talked about was getting this one for Ryan. We knew how much this meant to him. First game out, big game, away, a rival, and we got the job done.”
One game isn’t enough to draw any conclusions. It remains to be seen how Saunders will put his stamp on the team he inherited midseason after Tom Thibodeau was fired Sunday following a 19-21 start.
It will take time to see how Saunders’ player rotations will look once the roster is healthy, but there were some encouraging signs Tuesday night. The victory over the Thunder came with a combination of strong leadership that kept the team together when things got difficult in the second half combined with strong performances by the likes of Andrew Wiggins as well as reserves Tyus Jones and Dario Saric.
“My first thought was just [being] proud of the guys,” Saunders said of his emotions as the game ended. “That was the main thing. It is a surreal moment.”
Saunders didn’t waste time establishing a tone. From the start Saunders was engaged but not enraged as he walked the sideline — a noticeable contrast to the in-game demeanor of Thibodeau. There is no question the dynamic between coach and player was different than it had been. Some examples:
• There was a moment late in the game when Saunders — who rotated Taj Gibson and Saric at power forward repeatedly down the stretch, something Thibodeau rarely did — subbed in Gibson. As Saric, frustrated after missing two open three-pointers, walked off the floor, Saunders clapped his hands and promised Saric he would be back in the game soon.
• Late in the game, as Wiggins was at the free-throw line and Gibson was getting ready to check in, Gibson and Saunders watched the action from the sideline, Gibson’s arm around his coach.
• And then there was the connection between Saunders and Jones, a relationship that speaks to the work the two have done together in Jones’ three-plus seasons here. After Teague was ejected in the third quarter, Saunders asked if Jones could go the rest of the way and Jones promised his coach he’d get it done.
“You can see the pedigree,” Jones said. “You can see he’s built for this. I’m just happy for him. He works his butt off, he’s so dedicated to this organization. He loves this organization more than anyone I know.”
That said, there were signs of what is to come. The Wolves attempted 31 three-pointers — a tad higher than their average of 28.5 attempts. Promising to push the pace more, Saunders exhorted his team to do just that from the start Tuesday.
Wiggins had his best game of the season, if not his career. Attacking from start to finish, he scored a game-high 40 points, got to the line 18 times (making 16) and grabbed 10 rebounds.
“I’ve seen Andrew do a lot of things in my life,” Towns said afterward. “But I’ve never seen him play as complete a game as he did [Tuesday]. He was a one-man show.”
Said Wiggins: “We’re so late in the season, we’re not going to switch every play. But we tried to play fast, and Ryan had some new plays. It just felt good.”
The key now is to build on and maintain that energy. The poignancy of Saunders running the same team as his late father, Flip Saunders, will fade into the grind of the second half of the season. The Wolves (20-21) have won three games in a row but remain two games out of a playoff spot. But that doesn’t take anything away from Tuesday’s emotion.
“[Tuesday] was a statement win,” Towns said. “His dad is smiling down, happy for him right now.”