D'Angelo Russell didn't try to dress up his performance through the first three quarters of the Timberwolves' 96-89 victory over New Orleans on Saturday night.
"I just forgot how to play basketball, honestly," said Russell, who was just 2-for-10 through three periods at Target Center.
Sometimes, however, it's better to be lucky than good, like when Russell hoisted a three from the top of the key with around 26 seconds remaining and the Wolves ahead by four. Even though the rest of his night had gone awry, he caught a break, as the ball banked in off the glass and in for an anxiety-relieving three.
"Thank God it went in …" coach Chris Finch said. "Sometimes getting lucky in those situations is all you need."
There was a reason the Wolves were able to benefit from Russell's late stroke of luck. Their defense had put them in the position to win. Even as their offense ran ragged (20 turnovers, 41% shooting), their defense forced a franchise-record 30 turnovers and induced the Pelicans into shooting 35%.
A little bit of luck may have helped Russell's clinching shot, but the Wolves left feeling like they deserved to win because of their defense.
"It's really good to say," center Karl-Anthony Towns said. "I feel like for my years here we've always really relied on how many points we can score in one night. These are the kind of nights you need to fall back on something else. Our offense wasn't clicking the way we would like it to, but our defense was and it gave us a chance."
The Wolves had the additional hurdle of having to close the game without Towns, who fouled out with 6 minutes, 36 seconds remaining on an offensive foul against frequent foil Jonas Valanciunas (20 points). Towns flipped over a chair after the call, drawing a technical on his way out. The Wolves overcame the frustration in that moment, however and did enough for the win. Russell hit another 3 and the defense stood up in the final minutes. Before Towns fouled out, he was part of an 11-1 run to begin the quarter that guard Jordan McLaughlin helped spearhead. McLaughlin hadn't played through the first three quarters, but with Russell and the offense as a whole struggling, Finch turned to McLaughlin.
"All credit to J-Mac," Finch said. "He stayed ready the whole game and he was really the difference maker in a lot of ways. He got us going out there on the offensive end."
McLaughin had six points and two steals as he tried to pick up the speed of the offense.
"When we move at a fast pace and run our actions at a high level, it makes it tougher to guard," McLaughlin said. "When you're walking to spots, it's easier to guard. Coach Finch always puts an emphasis on our pace and that's what I try to do is push our pace."
The Wolves led 69-67 entering the fourth but led 83-72 shortly before Towns exited.
Anthony Edwards finished with 19 points. Brandon Ingram had a game-high 30 for New Orleans.
The Wolves had just three instances last season when they followed a win with another win. Usually they would lose the first game after a win — and then often lose multiple times after that.
Their defense failed them a lot last season. Through two games it has been their strength while the offense tries to get its act together. That's OK with them for now, especially given just how woeful that end of the floor has been in recent years.
"At the end of the game, when we look at the stat sheet, we have a lot to be proud of," Towns said. "Because, again, it's 89 points, right? That's a great defensive night. We should be winning games like that."