LOS ANGELES – Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson were at their lockers reveling following a 120-105 victory over the Lakers.
They were shaking their heads, laughing a bit and Towns said, twice: “This is why you need a bench.”
If ever there was a team win for the Timberwolves this season, Thursday night was it in that twisting and turning victory at Staples Center.
The Wolves were down two point guards entering the night – then they lost a third when Derrick Rose exited because of a right ankle injury at halftime. Interim head coach Ryan Saunders reached deep into his bench and pulled out little-used Luol Deng and rookie Jared Terrell, while relying on Jerryd Bayless to play heavy minutes with Rose out.
Imagine, if you can, those three unlikely names playing an important contribution in a Wolves victory in late January. It happened Thursday.
“You can’t say enough about those guys staying ready,” Saunders said. “That’s why I love this team. They’re just fun to be around and their professionalism is great. For Jared to be ready like that, it’s a huge credit to him and Luol as well. He’s always professional with things and you have to throw Jerryd Bayless in there. He had to play heavy minutes all at once.”
Bayless had 16 points in 30 minutes, Deng came in and scored seven points during a third quarter that lifted the Wolves’ spirits for the rest of the game. They outscored the Lakers 36-23 in the fourth quarter.
It also helped that the two principals for the Wolves, Andrew Wiggins and Towns, fed off the energy their teammates gave them, with Wiggins taking over the game early in the fourth quarter. He scored nine of the first 12 points of the fourth quarter on his way to 23 points while Towns finished with 27. With Rose out, Wiggins also took over point-guard duties at times and looked like a natural doing it.
“It feels good and I feel very comfortable because I feel like it helps me stay locked into the game,” Wiggins said. “It helps to do other things than just score, create for others.”
The Wolves also rebounded, grabbing 22 on the offensive glass for 34 second-chance points. Towns accounted for eight offensive rebounds.
But it was the bench that got the Wolves to the finish line. Deng, who came to Minnesota after the Lakers bought him out, hit a three-pointer upon entering the game. Terrell, who is on a two-way contract and splits his time between Iowa of the G-League and the Wolves, hit his first shot – a shot-clock buzzer beating three – on his way to 10 points for the night.
“We knew when Derrick couldn’t go second half, everybody had to step it up,” Deng said. “I just see the growth within the team. Earlier in the season this is a game that easily could have gone in a different direction. … I just see the guys coming together. It’s been a long season and the longer the season goes on, you just become closer.”
The last time the Wolves played the Lakers prior to Thursday, the game was at Target Center, the Wolves won by 22 but owner Glen Taylor pulled the trigger on firing Tom Thibodeau after the game.
Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, made it clear he wanted the Wolves to make the playoffs and he made the move, in part, because he hoped it would ignite the Wolves to swim faster upstream in the crowded Western Conference playoff race. They made a big step in that effort by getting back to .500 (24-24).
“We’ve had some great team wins,” Saunders said. “But guys banding together all the way from 1 to 16, we were great.”
Jerry Zgoda contributed to this report.