Wednesday’s fourth quarter was tight from start to finish. The Timberwolves were battling a veteran Atlanta team determined to avenge a loss to them in Atlanta two weeks before. The Wolves were trying to win consecutive home games for the first time this season.
But through it all, Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell stuck with a surprising lineup in a 99-95 victory.
With Ricky Rubio’s sore left ankle knocking him out of the game midway through the third quarter, and with starters Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Martin and — for all but 44 seconds of the fourth quarter — Kevin Garnett watching, the Wolves gutted out a rather impressive victory.
Minnesota swept the season series over the Hawks, who won 60 games last season. No wonder the team held a Minnesota Twins-like mini-dance party in the locker room afterward.
Following his gut and rewarding players who were on a roll, Mitchell went with Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Tayshaun Prince and Damjan Rudez for most of the fourth quarter.
And he was rewarded.
Rudez scored 13 points, eight in the fourth quarter, including consecutive three-pointers that gave the Wolves an 84-80 lead midway through the quarter.
Then with the score tied 94-94, Rudez hit two free throws with 1 minute, 52 seconds left, then Wiggins scored on a driving layup 28 seconds later for a 98-94 lead.
With 14.6 seconds left, Atlanta’s Jeff Teague was fouled. He hit the first free throw, but missed the second, with the Hawks getting the rebound. Then out of a timeout with 8.8 seconds left and down three, Teague’s three-pointer came up short with 4.9 seconds remaining, sealing the victory.
“I tell our guys all the time, everybody’s going to get a chance to play [at some point],” Mitchell said. “What you do in those minutes, it’s on you.”
Rudez was in double figures. Ditto for Dieng, who had 10 points and 11 rebounds. LaVine scored 18 with six assists, getting eight points in the final quarter which the Wolves entered down 74-70 to Atlanta (10-7).
It was the second consecutive home victory for the Wolves (7-8), who started the season 0-6 at home.
All five Hawks starters were in double figures, led by Teague and Paul Millsap with 22 points apiece.
Outrebounded and outscored in the paint by the Hawks, the Wolves limited Atlanta to 37.8 percent shooting, including 8-for-32 on three-pointers, usually a Hawks specialty.
In the fourth quarter, the Wolves held Atlanta to 6-for-22 shooting.
That’s why Mitchell stuck with that group, even after Atlanta rallied from six down to tie the score at 94 with 2:08 left.
Down one earlier in the quarter, Rudez hit a three-pointer with 8:05 left to give the Wolves their first lead of the fourth quarter at 81-80. Moments later he hit another, this time with 6:43 left, forcing an Atlanta timeout.
The Wolves weren’t cracking. Wiggins scored on a spin move at 4:50. Then LaVine drove and scored. Moments later, up against the shot clock, LaVine hit again, pushing the lead to 94-88 with 4:03 to play.
The Hawks stormed back with six in a row, with Al Horford’s dunk tying the score with 2:08 left.
The Wolves answered with Rudez hitting two free throws. Wiggins scored on a spin move and the Wolves were in the lead for good.
“I take great pride being a professional,” said Rudez, who had played sparingly. “Stay in shape, be ready.”
LaVine, meanwhile, kept on his recent hot streak shooting, hitting seven of 13 shots.
As a result, the Wolves are a game from .500 with two road games coming up.
“It’s up there,” LaVine said of the team’s confidence. “We’re back rolling. Now we just have to keep it up on the road.”