CLEVELAND – Some lessons are harder than others. But one thing is sure: It’s always easier when you win.
This is the way Wolves coach Ryan Saunders described it after his team’s 118-103 victory over the Cavaliers on Sunday night at Rocket Mortgage Arena, a game in which a couple of lessons were learned:
“Sometimes you have to win a game twice,” he said. “It feels like that.”
Yes, it does. With the injured and sick trickling back into the Wolves’ rotation, including starter Andrew Wiggins and reserves Jeff Teague and Noah Vonleh, the Wolves spent 2½ quarters building a 25-point lead with contributions up and down the roster.
And then Dante Exum happened.
Exum came off the bench to score 20 of his 28 points in a 30-4 Cavaliers run against Wolves reserves. It began with Brandon Knight’s floater with 3:22 left in the third quarter and ended with Exum’s three-pointer with 8:29 left in the game.
In six-plus minutes Exum hit all seven of his shots, all four of his three-pointers and both of his free throws to put Cleveland up one.
Saunders tried to project calm while at the same time reinserting most of his starters.
“Just try to finish the game,” said Gorgui Dieng, who led five starters in double figures with 22 points. “They got their run, and I think our mind-set was just, ‘Let’s try to stop them.’ They got hot. We just had to pick the energy up and play better defense.”
Keep in mind that the Wolves rallied against a 10-26 Cavaliers team that was without Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr. and Tristan Thompson. Still, they didn’t lose their poise on the road. That’s something that might not have happened during a recent 11-game losing streak.
Dieng got the ball to Wiggins, who hit a three-pointer. Robert Covington stole the ball from Exum, then hit one of two free throws. A Shabazz Napier steal turned into Wiggins’ 10-footer and the Wolves were off on a 14-0 run to put the game away. So, lesson one: Don’t give up.
Talk about a productive timeout. “It was more on them responding,” Saunders said. “We wanted to be calm, but also let it be known that it was not acceptable the way we were playing at that time. But that’s on all of us.”
Over the final 8 ½ minutes the Wolves (14-21) outscored Cleveland 22-7. Dieng had eight of those points, Wiggins five and Jarrett Culver four. But lesson two came from Culver on the defensive end: Don’t give in. Culver had struggled guarding Alec Burks in a loss to Golden State a while back. The next day came a long film session. Saunders gave him another chance late Sunday, inserting Culver into the game to guard Exum. After a brief rest, Exum returned with 4:14 left. He didn’t score again.
“He stepped up to the challenge,” Covington said of the rookie. “Me being a defensive player, I’m most happy because that step means evolution. I’m glad he made it happen.”
As did the Wolves, eventually. Napier scored 20 or more points for the fourth straight time, a career high. Wiggins had 15 points with seven rebounds after missing four games because of the flu.
And now: back-to-back wins for the first time since late November.
“That was a good game for us tonight,” Dieng said. “We had a chance to weather the storm.”