LOS ANGELES – The Timberwolves said hello to their 27th NBA season and in a very public way said their first real goodbye to coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders with Wednesday’s stirring 112-111 comeback victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Limited to just 22 games played last season because of injury, Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio delivered a career-high 28 points and 14 assists playing his first game under a new four-year, $55 million contract and No. 1 overall draft pick Karl Anthony-Towns' 14-point, 12-rebound double-double set standards for a Wolves rookie in his NBA debut.
When Lakers guard Lou Williams’ running, potentially winning floater missed at the final buzzer, Rubio grabbed the ball and appeared ready to throw it high in the air, as he has done on occasion in the past.
Instead, he held it with one hand and with the other pointed toward the heavens, keeping possession of the ball perhaps with the intention to present it to the Saunders’ family as the game ball.
On the floor for only the fourth quarter’s final play, teammate Kevin Garnett made the same sort of gesture as the Wolves left the floor in a joyous celebration.
“We had a little help today,” Rubio said afterward. “It’s been a tough week. It’s hard to explain. Everybody go through a lot of pain, but we came here to fight, compete and try to win the game…Even though he’s gone, he will stay with us forever.”
They did so, recovering from a 16-point, first-half deficit and then recovering again when they led by nine points with 2:13 left and nearly gave the game back again.
Instead, they held on, winning when Williams missed that running shot after he had made five of eight field-goal attempts and scored 18 points off the bench until then.
“Nine times out of 10, he hits that shot,” Towns said. “That one time, we had a sixth man on the floor. I don’t know what it was. We just seemed to have Coach Saunders on our side.”
Trailing by 15 points with fewer than four minutes left in the third quarter, the Wolves limited the Lakers to 3-for-20 shooting to start the fourth quarter, during a stretch when the notoriously spotty-shooting Rubio went 4-for-4.
They held on, making a stand on the game’s final play after they allowed Kobe Bryant three free throws on a three-point attempt and allowed the Lakers to score nine of the game’s final 10 points until Williams’ potential game winner missed.
“It was a pretty sight when that ball came up short,” Wolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell said. “I’m just proud of our guys. It has been a tough few days. They really wanted this basketball game. Coach would have been proud of them the way they battled, the way they played together. That’s all he wanted from them: Just go and compete as hard as they can.”
The Wolves opened their season three days after the man responsible for bringing or keeping every single rostered player to or in Minnesota died from complications related to his cancer treatment.
On a night that was both a new season’s celebration and somber reflection, NBA commissioner Adam Silver visited the Wolves’ Staples Center locker room before both teams took the floor with gray warmup shirts commemorating Saunders and his 20-year career.
The arena lights doused, an image of Saunders holding a basketball appeared on the overhead video scoreboard while the Lakers held a moment of silence for a man the Staples Center public-address announcer called a “beloved member of the NBA family.”
Silver exchanged hugs and condolences with the men who will carry on without Saunders – Mitchell, general manager Milt Newton, top assistant Sidney Lowe – in the coaches’ room and then spoke to the players in the locker room about 45 minutes before the opening tip.
The Wolves then went out and built an early 17-10 lead before they allowed the Lakers a 21-5 run that ended the first quarter and helped push the home team to that 16-point lead. But slowly, inevitably, the Wolves played their way back into the game, getting within four points early in the fourth quarter and then taking a 102-99 lead with 5 ½ minutes left.
They did so with a lineup of reserves that had let the Lakers take over the first half and they did so by displaying a Rubio-Zach LaVine backcourt that had went unseen during preseason play.
Towns’ performance was the first double-double game by a Wolves rookie in his NBA debut and his 12 rebounds were the most by a Wolf in his NBA debut as well.
Kevin Martin scored 23 points off the bench with a second unit that let the early lead get away and then helped win the game at the end.
Andrew Wiggins played with a stiff neck and back that had bothered him the last three days and had a treatment pack strapped to his shoulder blade at times when he was not on the court.
“It's different, difficult,” Mitchell said before the game. “It has been a tough couple days. What you want to do is get guys on the court and get them back playing basketball. In your quiet time, you’re always going to reflect on what Coach meant to you. You just can’t avoid that. We always talked about this: He’d want these guys to get their minds on what they love doing when they get on the bus to come to the arena or get in their car to drive to Target Center.
“Coach loved this game. He played it and coached it. He loved it. The best way to honor him is to go play as hard as you can and play as a team and the rest will take care of itself.”