MIAMI – The cheers roared through the closed door of the Timberwolves locker room and out into the hallway Wednesday following their 129-126 victory over the Heat.
Once the door opened and media members came in, the cramped space at American Airlines Arena became one of the most jubilant scenes in this regenerated season.
To the left was Malik Beasley (21 points) going over to Jake Layman to tell him, “Big free throws, boy,” after Layman hit a pair to put the Wolves ahead 125-124 with 17.4 seconds remaining, then another two to ice the game.
To the right was Jordan McLaughlin, the two-way player who has been a revelation, conducting his postgame interviews after hitting the go-ahead layup with 8.5 seconds left. Behind McLaughlin (13 points, five assists) was D’Angelo Russell, improbably the defensive hero with a key block as he and two other Wolves chased down former Wolves antagonist Jimmy Butler, whose final attempt for the win never made it to the rim. Russell said “Let’s go” when told the official statisticians credited him with the block.
“I know we’ve been joking [with] D-Lo about his defense,” Josh Okogie said. “He told us we can’t talk about his defense no more.”
It helped that Russell had 27 points, including seven three-pointers, field goals that James Johnson referred to “relief buckets” for the Wolves. But it was the defense that won the game.
“[Coach Ryan Saunders] showed a lot of trust in me,” Russell said. “I’ve been in situations throughout my career where teams have made that substitution and went all defensive lineup, no hiccup, no weaknesses. For him to trust me and to believe I would be there to execute, that’s just our chemistry growing.”
Behind Russell was a little bit of a liquid in a cup, something Wolves players referred to as “apple juice” — except it was the kind with a little kick to it. Johnson and Karl-Anthony Towns toasted a shot of this apple juice in celebration of the best night so far, for what is essentially a new Wolves team.
“It just goes to show where our mental stability is right now and our mental strength,” Johnson said. “I know a lot of the things we do right now are imperfect, but … I feel like our guys’ hearts are in the right place, and it’s going to be hard to beat that.”
That it came against Butler (18 points, nine assists), who committed turnovers on three consecutive possessions down the stretch to allow the Wolves to erase a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter, didn’t matter much to this group. Perhaps it meant something to fans who are still steamed at Butler’s unceremonious exit over a year and a half ago. You can draw a line from Butler’s trade to Philadelphia to the team the Wolves had on the floor.
His exit and the drama around it led to the firing of coach and President Tom Thibodeau, which led to the hiring of President Gersson Rosas, who decided the Wolves needed a complete overhaul of their roster outside of only two people who were on the team when Butler was last in Minnesota — Towns and Okogie.
“My job is to help us win, and I haven’t done that in I don’t know how long,” Butler said.
This was Butler’s third matchup against his old team since leaving, and each time, a little more distance comes between him and his former club. That was never as stark as it was Wednesday. This new era has gotten off to a rocky start, with the Wolves losing four straight before Wednesday’s win.
“I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a lot of times, we all like each other,” Okogie said. “It’s not really that hard to stay together. We stayed the course, and we stayed positive through everything. We had each other’s back, and we came out with a win.
Saunders joked that shootaround was “one of the best shootarounds I’ve seen after a night in Miami.”
The Wolves were not scheduled to practice Thursday and weren’t going to fly to their next stop in Orlando until then, which meant another night in Miami.
Apple juice all around.