Houston guard James Harden shuffled back about 6 feet behind the three-point line as the shot clock was winding down in the third quarter. Timberwolves rookie Josh Okogie was expecting it, and followed Harden step for step. Okogie rose as Harden rose and his hand met nothing but the ball, sending it back down to the floor while fans at Target Center elevated into the air.
It was an electrifying moment from the rookie that sent a message in the Wolves’ 121-111 victory: Harden may be the NBA’s best scorer, but the Wolves weren’t about to make it easy for him.
Harden got his with 42 points to extend his streak of games with 30 or more points to 31, but the Wolves came away with an emotional victory to head into the All-Star break on an upswing after a downtrodden and distressing last few weeks.
“It wasn’t a good 42,” Towns said of Harden’s night. “It wasn’t a 42 that he’s been getting recently. He had to work for it, and that’s all you can ask for with a player who’s playing at an MVP level like him.”
The Wolves can thank two of their teammates, the youngster Okogie and the veteran Luol Deng for hassling Harden most of the night. He needed 34 shots to get there, while the Wolves were the more efficient offense, hitting 10 of 20 three-pointers and 54.4 percent of their shots. Towns had 25 points and nine rebounds while Jeff Teague filled the scoring void an ill Andrew Wiggins left in piling up 27 points on 11 of 16 shooting to go with 12 assists.
But it was Okogie’s defense that provided the jubilation, an emotion that has been missing for Wolves fans in recent weeks.
“We saw him grow up in a lot of ways,” interim coach Ryan Saunders said. “Following the game plan, just staying in the moment and not getting outside of himself.”
Okogie (16 points) fed off the exhilaration, instead of trying to control himself. He picked Harden’s pocket a few times, including a few plays before his block.
“I knew obviously the step-back is one of his go-to moves. So I kind of just guessed, and I was right,” Okogie said.
It awed everyone in the building, except for one teammate — Teague.
“That really didn’t impress me,” Teague said.
Why was that?
“I’ve seen him do some amazing things since I’ve been here. … I’ve seen better things.”
Okogie also added a three-pointer on the possession before the block to give the Wolves a 77-74 lead. Houston tied the game only once after that.
“Today was like a really big test for me,” Okogie said. “I hope I passed.”
He had some help from Deng, the veteran who keeps contributing off the bench. Deng guarded Harden when Okogie was on the bench and used his length to make life difficult for Harden.
It all added up to one of the most emotional and well-played wins the Wolves have had in a while. A team that appeared to be limping into the All-Star break with little shot at the playoffs gave itself an injection of hope as the team rests the next eight days.
“You see the vibe is very good in here. Happy,” Towns said amid laughter in the postgame locker room. “You want to go into break with a good thought. The last thought being a good one.”
There were plenty to go around for a change.