Even though they allowed an undermanned Oklahoma City team to hang around all night and even though they turned the ball over in a tie game with 25.7 seconds remaining, the Timberwolves defeated the Thunder 106-103 in spite of themselves Friday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Wolves guard D'Angelo Russell, who drew criticism for his brand of hero ball in a come-from-ahead loss to San Antonio on Wednesday, played that brand of basketball to its fulfillment by hitting a winning three-pointer to break a 103-103 tie with 3.7 seconds remaining, sparing viewers at home from having to watch an overtime to conclude an otherwise messy matchup.
"You're gonna have ups and downs in the league," Russell said. "So might as well put your hands up on the roller coaster while you're going up and down. Why not?"
Friday's game was like the roller coaster that leaves you with a little whiplash after the ride is over.
It was that way in part because Oklahoma City had only the NBA-minimum eight players available because of ailments and COVID protocols. Among them was dynamic point guard Shea Gilgeous-Alexander, who leads the Thunder in points and assists.
The Wolves were without Karl-Anthony Towns, Juancho Hernangomez and Jarrett Culver. But they still had Russell and Malik Beasley, and that should have been enough to defeat the split-squad Thunder. It was — barely.
"Playing a team like this, they're shorthanded, you know that they're going to play hard the entire game because there's guys fighting for spots, fighting for minutes on their team as well," said Wolves forward Jake Layman (10 points). "I think there were points in the game where they were playing harder than us."
Such as when Oklahoma City jumped to an 8-0 lead. But Beasley carried the load in the first half while everyone else for the Wolves was cold (5-for-20 three-point shooting in the first half). He finished with 24 points. Russell closed it out by scoring the Wolves' final five. He said he felt much-needed relief when his final shot went through the hoop.
"How many games we could've won," Russell said, "if the ball just bounced our way?"
The Wolves won Friday, but not before they did their best to lose it.
First, they nearly blew another fourth-quarter lead after Jaylen Nowell (14 points) hit a three to give the Wolves an 85-76 lead headed into the fourth. As with so many other fourth-quarter leads this season, the Wolves couldn't hold it. Veteran Al Horford wouldn't let the Thunder go down quietly, posting a season-high 26 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. An 11-2 burst tied the score for Oklahoma City at 92. Horford hit a three to tie it again with 25.7 seconds remaining — and the Wolves didn't quite do enough to lose.
After a timeout, Ricky Rubio threw away the inbounds pass. The Thunder hurried down the floor but so did Naz Reid, who did just enough to throw off Hamidou Diallo's layup attempt. The ball went out of bounds off Oklahoma City, the Wolves brought it down and Russell clinched it.
Disaster averted, at least for one night.
"We've got a young team, a lot of guys have never seen me make those shots, probably just heard about it," Russell said. "We've had those opportunities early in the season, a few games ago where I could've made the shot and we'd win the game, but it's just another stripe of credibility so guys can trust it, trust I'm going to make the right play for us."
The Star Tribune did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews after the game.