The Timberwolves welcomed just-signed Lance Stephenson to his new team with Wednesday’s 112-109 victory over Toronto, a comeback at Target Center in which Stephenson played the entire fourth quarter only hours after he got turned around in the arena’s corridors.
“I got lost earlier,” he said afterward, “but I finally found the locker room.”
That was Wednesday morning after he officially signed a 10-day contract. By nightfall, he and fellow reserves Tyus Jones and Shabazz Muhammad all found their way home down the stretch, when coach Tom Thibodeau played them to the finish.
Stephenson provided a veteran’s know-how and what Thibodeau called an “edge,” particularly when it came to defending Raptors All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry with the game in doubt during the final minute.
Jones and Muhammad spread the floor and created room for young stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns to work with the threat of their perimeter shooting.
Jones’ three-pointer with 19.5 seconds left broke a 107-107 tie and was the go-ahead score from which the Raptors never recovered.
It came on a night when he missed his first three three-point shots but made the one that counted most.
“That’s what you dream of, the go-ahead shot in an NBA game late like that in the fourth,” Jones said. “You spend hours and hours in the gym and shoot thousands and thousands of those. You can’t let it affect you. My teammates and coaches kept telling me to keep shooting it with confidence. You just have to trust them, like Wigs trusted me by making the pass.”
Like Stephenson, Jones played the entire fourth quarter because he was part of the group that brought the Wolves back from a seven-point deficit late in the third quarter.
Until then, the Wolves trailed by as many as 13 points and were down by 10 at halftime before their starters began the second half with an 18-7 burst.
“We were flowing,” Wiggins said of the fourth-quarter finish. “Coach let that lineup rock.”
Wiggins played both shot-maker and playmaker Wednesday, a night when he scored 31 points and also had six assists.
“Andrew was great,” Thibodeau said. “He has really grown in that area, and he has to do more. He has to do more.”
Just like he did after Monday’s 115-113 home loss to Miami, Thibodeau again demanded that his team play with “more of an edge” and “more tenacity” after it allowed 63 first-half points and 60.5 percent first-half shooting.
“Our best players have to lead, they have to play defense,” he said, likely referring to Wiggins and especially Towns (29 points, 14 rebounds). “They have to. It’s a must.”
Stephenson was the one who particularly provided that edge and tenacity in a 20-minute, six-point, four-rebound performance.
“He came in and you couldn’t tell he wasn’t here before,” Wiggins said. “He blended right in.”
Stephenson’s play was more than Thibodeau could have asked from a guy who had groin surgery and hadn’t played a game in three months.
“It’s the NBA, everybody has to be ready,” Thibodeau said. “Whoever that next guy is, get in there and get the job done. He has been in a lot of games. Knowing the NBA is big plus and this is a great opportunity for him and it’s going to be what he makes of it. How hard he works, his professionalism, what kind of teammate he is, how he performs and helps us is critical.”
Stephenson said he expected that he would be more tired than he was.
“But I’ve been working so hard and I wanted to be back so bad, I was ready and confident in myself,” Stephenson said. “I just tried to take smart shots. Don’t do anything crazy. Be solid. Coach had trust in me and he left me in.”