MEMPHIS – Never in a position these last many years to quibble with victory, the Timberwolves could have regretted making Wednesday’s 114-108 decision over Memphis such an adventure or been grateful they persevered despite getting pounded on the backboards for the third time on a four-game trip that ends Friday in Houston.
After the final horn, it was probably some of both.
The Wolves now have won on this trip by beating Oklahoma City on Ricky Rubio’s last-second shot and by outlasting a Grizzlies team so depleted by injuries they don’t have enough lockers ready to welcome all four hardship-roster exemptions they’ve recently signed to 10-day contracts.
They have done so despite getting outrebounded 54-37 by the Thunder, 57-36 at Phoenix on Monday and 51-33 by Memphis, which grabbed 27 offensive rebounds.
Two nights after they lost by 49 points at Houston, the Grizzlies surrendered 42 first-quarter points and trailed by 17 points in the first quarter, 19 in the second and 20 midway through the third quarter.
And yet an opponent missing starters Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and five other rotation players banged and rebounded themselves within four points twice in the final two minutes before the Wolves shoved back for good.
“Win by 20 or win by one,” Wolves guard Zach LaVine said, “it’s a win.”
The Wolves won after big men Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns answered by scoring each time the Grizzlies got within four points. They won after LaVine pushed them to comfortable double-digit leads in all four quarters, thanks to his second consecutive 28-point game.
Two nights after he did so in a last-second loss at Phoenix, LaVine scored 25 of those 28 points in the first three quarters. He made 11 of 19 shots from the field — including six of 10 from three-point range — and shot it deep and with great touch despite being chased most of the night by Memphis designated defender Tony Allen.
“The kid, Zach LaVine, got going early and caught a rhythm,” Allen said. “Those guys followed his lead. Their rotation, one through nine, starting running away with the lead and we weren’t able to recover.”
The Grizzlies started D League call-up Briante Weber for Conley at point guard, former Wolves big man Ryan Hollins for Gasol at center and JaMychal Green for Randolph at power forward. They also played without Brandan Wright, P.J. Hairston, Chris Andersen, Vince Carter and others, but got guard Lance Stephenson back in the lineup. Stephenson, through the force of his own will and a 24-point scoring night, brought the Grizzlies back into the game.
At one point during the third quarter, Mitchell shouted instructions to his players, naming Grizzlies by their numbers instead of names.
“You don’t even know their names,” a fan shouted from courtside. “We don’t either.”
Largely unfamiliar with each other, the Grizzlies eventually adopted this strategy: Throw the ball at the basket and go get it. Wolves guard Ricky Rubio called their approach “very aggressive.”
“If you see somebody has a jersey in this league, that means he can play,” said Dieng, who said his team lost its big leads because it stopped playing “team basketball” and started hoisting one-pass shots.
They played together just enough to win.
“I’m glad we won the game, there’s no such thing as a bad win in the NBA,” Mitchell said. “The concern is how we’re going to play a team even bigger and more athletic team [Houston]. Between now and Friday, we’re going to have to figure out a way to rebound.”