Just call it some very heavy symbolism.
It was Sunday afternoon at Target Center. The Timberwolves had won, finally. The streak had ended. And so Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell put assistant coach Vince Legarza — all 6 feet 9 and 270 pounds of him — on his back and walked into the locker room. Then he put him down.
“To get the weight off our back,” Mitchell explained. “I don’t think I’ll do that again.”
For the first time in 10 games and only the second time in 15, the Wolves won. And they did it big, 117-87 over the Phoenix Suns.
Andrew Wiggins scored 16 of his 18 points in the first half as the Wolves built a 10-point lead. But this time, there was no giving that lead up. Starters and reserves kept building on it, with everyone getting involved.
Twelve players scored for the Wolves (13-29), seven in double figures, led by Wiggins and Ricky Rubio with 18. In an indication of how well the ball moved all day, 10 players picked up at least one assist. Over the final 12 minutes of the game the starters sat on the bench, relaxed and enjoyed the view.
“That’s the greatest feeling,” said rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 14 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in 26 minutes. “Knowing we’ve done our jobs as starters, built a lead. There is no better feeling than knowing everyone came to play today.”
The Wolves led by one after a quarter, by 10 at the half, by 14 entering the fourth quarter and ultimately by as many as 34. It was easily the team’s largest margin of victory this season.
So, afterward, the miniature disco balls that had been gathering dust in players’ lockers were busted back out.
“A big relief,” said Wiggins, who came into the game determined to get his team off to a good start; 12 first-quarter points did the job. “I wanted a win. ‘’
The Suns (13-29) entered the game having lost 12 of 13 games and were without starters Eric Bledsoe and Alex Len.
And the Wolves took advantage with some impressive efficiency. They scored 117 points while taking just 69 shots, thanks to a high shooting percentage (56.5) and going 32-for-40 on free throws. And in a season in which no lead has felt safe, the Wolves ended the game with a flourish, outscoring Phoenix 34-18 in the fourth quarter.
“We kept the hammer down,” Mitchell said. “We remembered how we got the lead. Defense, rebounding and ball movement.”
And now the challenge is to carry this momentum into Tuesday’s game in New Orleans. The Wolves haven’t won back-to-back games since Dec. 18 and 20.
“This has been a tough time, but tonight we showed we had it,” Rubio said. “We care about winning, and tonight we showed it. We have to build from here. We can’t let this win not carry to the next game.”
Before the game, Mitchell talked about how hard his players kept playing despite the losing streak. That’s why, he said, he felt so good about the win. Good enough to hoist a rather large assistant on his back.
“They don’t hang their heads or point fingers,” Mitchell said. “They came to work every day and tried to become a better team. You need some wins along the way to verify the hard work you’re putting in.”