Near the end of a long, lousy season they probably can’t too soon forget, the Timberwolves witnessed their future clear as can be Saturday night at Golden State.
They trailed by as many as 17 points and lost 110-101 on another shorthanded night when they used just seven players. They also received performances from rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine that suggest training camp’s start next fall can’t come too soon.
Come October, a season filled with injuries and illness should be long behind them. Come October, Wiggins and LaVine presumably will be stronger, wiser and older.
Three games before season’s end, LaVine made six three-pointers and provided 37 points and nine rebounds — both career highs — while Wiggins overcame fatigue and sore knees while playing 44 minutes to record nine assists that were a career high as well.
“Every day we’re growing, we’re seeing different things,” Wiggins said. “We’re both doing things we weren’t doing at the beginning of the year. That’s showing more and more.”
Wolves coach Flip Saunders called their performances against the NBA’s best team payoff for such a trying year for a team poised to add another talented young player in the June draft.
“It has been frustrating for fans, frustrating for us for what we’ve had to go through,” Saunders said. “But there’s no question Wiggins and LaVine would not be where they are today at game number 80 if wehad been healthy. You have to look at it: It has been frustrating, but there have been some silver linings.”
Wiggins scored 17 points by halftime Saturday, then did not score again as he played 40-plus minutes for the fourth consecutive game. His nine assists were three more than his previous career high of six reached the night before in Los Angeles.
“I’ve been trying,” Wiggins said about his growth as a playmaker.
LaVine took over in scoring where Wiggins left off at halftime Saturday. He played the entire second half, making nine of 15 shots, scoring 24 points and pushing the Wolves back into contention. He finished with a 37-point, nine-rebound, four-assist night and outscored Warriors MVP candidate Stephen Curry by three, even if LaVine played nearly 10 more minutes.
“I get hot, he stays hot,” LaVine said. “I’m trying to get to his level.”
LaVine finished 9-for-15 from the field, including 6-for-10 on three-pointers. His 37 points broke by two points Christian Laettner’s franchise record for points scored in a game by a rookie, set long ago. His six three-pointers tied a rookie club record held by Wes Johnson and Stephon Marbury. But he also regretted a late-game turnover that helped the Warriors push the Wolves away.
“Personally, I feel like I can’t miss,” LaVine said, referring to Saturday’s shooting zone. “I felt like if the game kept going on and on, I could have kept scoring. I want to know what like Kobe [Bryant] and them feel like when they score like 50, 60, 80 points. That’s just stupid.”
LaVine played more off the ball Saturday than he had done most of this season, providing a preview of his future as the scoring guard Saunders said he always has envisioned LaVine will be. LaVine spent his first NBA season laboring to play point guard out of necessity, a forced-feeding Saunders said will benefit LaVine long-term because it makes him handle the ball more and learn a difficult position.
LaVine showed Saturday he can score.
“Definitely, that’s what he’s really good at, he can score the ball,” Wiggins said. “Obviously he can handle it. You’ve seen him handle it. He can pass it off, too. He can be a do-it-all scorer.”
Both LaVine and Wiggins have pushed through rookie fatigue and are finishing the season strong.
LaVine is averaging 18.4 points and nearly five rebounds and five assists in his past 16 games while also shooting 45 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point distance and 83 percent from the free-throw line. Wiggins has averaged 24.1 points on 46 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists in his past 11 games.
Wiggins turned 20 years old in February, LaVine did so in March.
“I feel like we’re really good,” LaVine said. “We’re just going to keep going, try to do the best we can, try to turn this around because we’re definitely looking for the future.”