For most of the night, the excitement seemed to be centered around an impatient wait for the best of the Timberwolves’ past to return. Kevin Garnett’s pending, looming presence seemed to overwhelm Target Center on Friday night, even as the Wolves and Phoenix Suns kicked off the post-All Star break, and even though Garnett, acquired in a trade Wednesday, was not yet here.
And then something happened.
The Wolves’ future got in the way of all that nostalgia in a rather thrilling 111-109 victory. There was Andrew Wiggins, playing one of his most aggressive games yet in his last game as a teenager, scoring a crucial late basket. Or Ricky Rubio coming two rebounds short of a triple-double. By the time the tense fourth quarter had finished, the Wolves had their 12th victory of the year, their fourth in six games, and were joking about being 1-0 since the big trade.
“The KG effect,” said Rubio, who had 10 points, 14 assists and eight rebounds. Perhaps more impressive was the shutdown defense he played on Suns star Eric Bledsoe, who went scoreless in the fourth, failing on a late-game drive with Rubio right on him.
So a night that began with more than one roaring tribute to Garnett —who had his physical in Los Angeles on Friday and will join the Wolves on Monday and make his debut Wednesday — ended with an everyone-on-their-feet cheer for a team that gritted out a final 12 minutes that had 10 lead changes and eight ties.
Kevin Martin had 28 points. Wiggins had 20. Both Gorgui Dieng and Nikola Pekovic had double-doubles, with Pekovic getting eight of his 16 points in the final quarter. That was enough to best a Suns team that got double-figure scoring from seven players, including a game-high 31 from Marieff Morris.
Garnett? He led the way in tributes.
Before the game, on the concourse level, fans were lined up 50 yards deep to sign up for 2015-16 season tickets.
The crowd cheered when Garnett’s picture was flashed on the scoreboard before the starting lineup was announced. And again in the second quarter, when a Garnett montage was played during a timeout to the tune, “I’m coming home.’’
But then a great game brought the crowd back to the present.
The Wolves took the lead for good with 2:59 left when Pekovic scored. Moments later, after Bledsoe missed a three-pointer, Rubio fed Pekovic again and the lead was three with 1:12 left.
Alex Len hit two free throws but Rubio responded with two of his own with 46.5 seconds left. Moments later Morris hit two more free throws and it was a one-point game.
Coming out of a timeout, coach Flip Saunders called a pick-and-roll for Rubio and Wiggins. Afterward, Wiggins joked that he just did what Rubio told him. Rubio intimated that it was good the rookie listened to him. On the left block, Wiggins slipped his defender, got a perfect pass and scored with 17.6 seconds left.
After Bledsoe missed on his drive, Dieng hit one of two free throws with 11.5 seconds left, sealing the game.
“We’re getting better every game,” said Wiggins, who turns 20 Monday. “It makes you think what might have happened early in the season if we’d been healthy.’’
It certainly makes Rubio think. After the game he said the goal coming out of the break was to play at least .500 basketball down the stretch. Friday was a start. Soon Garnett will join the fray, bringing his presence and his intensity.
“We can’t look at our record,” Rubio said. “If we did, we’d think we wouldn’t be playing for nothing. But we are. We’re playing for the future. … And that future starts right now.”