SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – Even with a three-game winning streak and .500 record a month into the season, Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell did some explaining after Friday's 101-91 victory over Sacramento.
Winning usually requires no such thing, but Mitchell called upon reserve center Gorgui Dieng to essentially play the entire fourth quarters of consecutive victories over Atlanta and the Kings while No. 1 overall pick and starter Karl-Anthony Towns didn't play a second in those final 12 minutes either night.
More than a Timberwolves fan or two wondered what was up with that.
"His defense in the pick-and-roll," Mitchell said after Friday's game.
Mitchell stuck with Dieng, a third-year player, rather than go back to the rookie in what became successful attempts to slow pick-and-roll plays run by Atlanta point guard Jeff Teague and Sacramento's Rajon Rondo.
"He has a little bit more experience than Karl," Mitchell said. "He has seen a little more than Karl. Rondo is tricky with the ball. I have a great comfort level with Karl and G [Dieng] together. I like those two. It doesn't matter to me who finishes the game."
Dieng has played more minutes than Towns — six more minutes Friday, three more on Wednesday — in each of the past two games. That had only happened once in the Wolves' first 14 games.
Against the Kings, Mitchell brought back starters Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Martin and Zach LaVine for the final six minutes or more but left Dieng and veteran Tayshaun Prince on the floor for every fourth-quarter second.
Mitchell's fourth-quarter combinations protected a seven-point lead, allowing the Kings twice to get within two points early in the quarter before the Wolves pushed their lead to as many as 13 points in the final three minutes. Dieng also was on the floor for most of the second quarter, when the Wolves outscored Sacramento 24-19 and started to take control of the game.
"I don't think Karl has done anything wrong," Mitchell said. "It's just when G's out there, that group happened to be playing well. To Karl's credit, he's the first one [cheering] off the bench, first one hugging G because those two guys go after each other in practice every single day. They work to make each other better. They have a great mutual respect for each other. We feel good about our two young centers. I'm really comfortable with both of them."
If you deem such things important, Dieng led the Wolves in Friday's plus-minus rating with a plus-14, meaning his team outscored the Kings by 14 points when he was on the floor.
Rondo had six points, 11 assists and no turnovers by halftime and finished with 16 points, 16 assists and still no turnovers. He scored three points, grabbed two rebounds but didn't have an assist in a fourth quarter that the Wolves won with their defense, much of which Mitchell attributed to Dieng's mobility and know-how.
"I mean, it's just a learning process," Dieng said when asked about defending pick-and-rolls after Friday's eight-point, eight-rebound night. "It has been the best job for me, and I'm just trying to do the best I can. All the point guards in this league are really good at what they do. The pick-and-roll is hard to defend. If you can do that, you've got a chance to play more on the floor."
LaVine credited Dieng's defense partly with his own 19-point, eight-rebound, four-assist performance while starting at point guard for injured Ricky Rubio.
"He has been really good at it, stepping up, not letting that guard blow by," LaVine said. "That lets me get back in front and get rebounds, plenty strong. Stopping pick-and-rolls, it's a nightmare. We're getting better at it, though. They have to guard me in pick-and-rolls, too."