NEW YORK –For four quarters, the Timberwolves relied on Karl-Anthony Towns to stuff the stat sheet and be the base of their defense in the post.
But during the most critical moments of overtime, his coach finally gave him a break.
The Wolves pulled off a surprising 127-126 victory over the Nets at Barclays Center, stunning a sellout crowd that was delirious over the debut of Kyrie Irving, who finished with a game-high 50 points.
But Irving came up empty on the final possession — one that Towns and his 36 points and 14 rebounds watched from the bench.
“It was eventful,” coach Ryan Saunders said. “You’re kind of at a loss for words.”
Josh Okogie provided the pivotal defense on the play to throw Irving off balance, knocking the ball loose and forcing to him to take a rushed shot before time expired, and a stunned crowd took in the upset.
“I was on an island, and he had all the space in the world,” Okogie said. “I just had to figure out a way to disrupt him a little bit.”
Okogie (11 points) had plenty of help in lending a helping hand during overtime, which served as a bit of redemption for Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins (21 points) had struggled with his shooting most of the night, hitting just 8-for-25 in regulation. But in overtime, he took the ball hard to the basket, and scored on his only two shots of the extra period to give the Wolves a 127-124 lead with 52.8 seconds remaining.
“The only way I was going to take a jumper down the stretch was if they leave me completely wide open, I’m going to shoot it,” Wiggins said. “But my main focus was getting to the rim. I feel like I had success doing that throughout the game so I just stayed with it.”
In an unusual move before Brooklyn’s final possession with 14.5 seconds remaining, Saunders made three substitutions. He took out Jeff Teague, Towns and Wiggins and replaced them with Okogie, Jake Layman and Noah Vonleh.
That came at the urging of Robert Covington, who said he suggested to Saunders to get member of the Wolves’ second unit on the floor, a group that helped the Wolves build an 18-point lead in the first half.
“Just by putting our bigger defensive lineup in, ultimately we wanted guys who could switch at all times,” Covington said. “No harm to anybody else, but it was just the guys who played really hard on defense. All can do so many different things, and that's what we needed, especially in that moment.”
Saunders took out Towns because he had five fouls and wanted to prevent him from picking up foul number six in case Brooklyn decided to attack the rim and go for a quick layup. That way he’d at least have Towns for the final offensive possession.
He didn’t need him.
Afterward, the Wolves locker room wasn’t overly celebratory. There was music blaring as Towns sang along and high-fived a few teammates.
But it was upbeat. After a summer the promised sweeping changes, the big question would be how the new product would actually work on the floor. Fans got their first of 82 answers, and at least for Wednesday it didn’t look that bad.
“We bonded,” Towns said. “And you saw, when the game got close, no matter how close and how rough it was getting, we stayed very unified, and we kept to each other, and we trusted in each other.”