PHILADELPHIA — D'Angelo Russell has been a member of the Timberwolves for nearly two years in parts of three different seasons.
He has endured a lot of losing — and a lot of criticism for being a part of that losing. Pick a game from the past two seasons and you will see clips of Russell's laissez-faire defense which can make him a defensive liability late in games..
"Let's be honest, we've all seen him play," center Karl-Anthony Towns said.
But when the Timberwolves needed a defensive stop down one in their 121-120 double overtime victory over Philadelphia, the Wolves weren't taking Russell off the floor.
He delivered with a steal that led to the winning bucket from Taurean Prince with 4.8 seconds remaining in the second overtime.
"Criticism, I try to stay away from it," Russell said. "My boys criticize me more than media."
His boys were singing his praises after Saturday.
"That's probably one of the best D'Angelo Russell performances I've ever seen," Towns said. "I've seen him get 50 against us, but the difference between this game and that game … is the defense he played as well as the offense he gave us."
Added coach Chris Finch, who said he was "utterly drained" after the win: "He was under control, wanted the ball, made big shots, calmed everybody down, myself included. He was awesome."
Russell finished with 35 points, 27 of those coming in the fourth quarter and the two overtimes. There were many times Saturday the Wolves could have folded; when Philadelphia erased a 20-point second-half Wolves lead; when Towns fouled out at the end of regulation; when Andre Drummond temporarily broke the Wolves' back by reaching over Jarred Vanderbilt for a tying tip-in with 2.1 seconds remaining on a missed Tyrese Maxey free throw In the first overtime.
Through the raucous crowd and the swings of emotion Russell was there to get buckets, including a raining teardrop three that put them ahead 113-110 at the end of the first overtime — and make one of the most important defensive plays he has made with the Wolves.
The Wolves kept digging even as officials' whistles went against them (Joel Embiid shot 21 free throws) along with potentially demoralizing breaks in the game (Drummond's tip). Russell was there to give them wind under their wings with his clutch shooting.
"Feel like I'm shooting the same shots," Russell said. "Just happened to go in tonight and we needed them."
On the deciding steal, Russell said he noticed Maxey and Embiid, who ate up the Wolves with 42 points, were running the same action to start the 76ers' overtime possessions. He noticed their chemistry was a bit off, and sometimes Embiid would pop out. Sometimes he would roll. But Maxey would always throw a bounce pass to feed Embiid, Russell said.
"They kept running that same play," Russell said. "I just tried to keep my hand down there and anticipate the bounce pass and we got it when it mattered."
Then Russell got the ball in transition to Prince, who laid it in with 4.8 seconds left.
A few seconds after that the Wolves got a stop and had a few words for Philadelphia fans as they headed down the tunnel, where owner Alex Rodriguez was there to high five-them. Owner Marc Lore joined after to greet them and discuss the "incredible" win he had just seen with executive vice president Sachin Gupta.
Russell didn't seem overly emotional.
When asked if this was his best game with the Wolves, Russell said: "I think my best game is yet to happen."
Saturday will be a hard one to top.
He likes to say he has ice in his veins, and as winter approaches, the ice has started to form.