WASHINGTON – There were plenty of celebrations from the bench, smiles abounded in the locker room from players and staff alike while Jarrett Culver got some light teasing from his teammates for the media attention he was receiving for setting a career high.
It was hard to predict how Saturday night was going to go for the Timberwolves with Karl-Anthony Towns serving the first of a two-game suspension following Wednesday’s fight with 76ers center Joel Embiid.
It was hard to see it going this well.
The Wolves dominated the Wizards 131-109 in front of a Washington crowd hung over from World Series fever, and they barely broke a sweat doing it, pulling ahead by as many as 34 points at the end of the third quarter.
“It was a full-on team effort,” Robert Covington said. “We know that the head of the snake wasn’t with us tonight. We just ultimately had to sit up here and rally around each other and get it done.”
With the Wolves down Towns for two games, the natural question was who would step up in his absence? At least for the first game, the answer was … everyone.
“KAT is a special player. He’s very important to this basketball team,” said center Gorgui Dieng, who started for Towns and had played only six minutes this season before Saturday. “But I think we all can play.”
They showed that Saturday.
The other members of the Wolves starting lineup did an admirable job picking up their production without their main offensive catalyst, while Dieng played like someone who doesn’t want to leave the rotation once Towns returns. Dieng had 18 points, eight rebounds and three blocks and made sure the Wolves didn’t miss a beat at center in improving to 4-1 for the first time since 2012.
“He’s capable,” Andrew Wiggins said of Dieng. “He’s one of our best big defenders, a great defender. He’s a real professional. Even though he wasn’t playing, he made sure he stayed ready and was ready to play. Whenever he got his chance, he maximized it.”
Jeff Teague ran the show with 15 points and 13 assists. Covington had his best offensive night of the young season with 20 on 7-for-10 shooting while Wiggins had 21 points and six assists.
Off the bench, Jake Layman had 14 points while rookie Jarrett Culver had a career-high 20. The Wolves were up by as much as 17 early, and were crisp offensively in shooting in-rhythm threes and easy baskets at the rim. It led to a 53.7% shooting performance. Defensively, the Wolves limited the Wizards to 38.9% shooting even though Bradley Beal got his with 30 points. The Wolves cracked it open with a 36-16 third quarter and were able to coast through the fourth.
There are moments throughout a season that can help bring a team closer together or drive it further apart. Last season, the Jimmy Butler drama coupled with a 4-9 start doomed the season just as it got going. Now, the Wolves have a couple of early touchstones they can build from — an overtime opening night victory at Brooklyn, Wiggins’ big night against Miami last weekend and now Friday.
“It’s a good feeling,” Wiggins said. “I feel like every time we win it’s getting better. It’s letting us know we can beat these teams as long as we play together and play within the system.”
A tougher test awaits without Towns on Monday, when the Milwaukee Bucks visit Target Center, and coach Ryan Saunders wanted to drive home the point that the Wolves needed to turn the page quickly.
“We’re not going to rest on our laurels,” Saunders said.
But they seemed proud of what they had done Saturday.