Four days earlier, Timberwolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell insisted upon youth near the end of a close game against Indiana and witnessed a fourth-quarter meltdown in a 14-point loss. In Wednesday’s 94-80 victory over Utah, he called upon graybeards Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince to finish off the game just as they started it and the result was a preserved lead and a four-game losing streak stopped.
Facing a Jazz team that played without four probable starters, the Wolves let a 15-point, third-quarter lead shrink to six in the fourth quarter but allowed Utah to get no closer, thanks to the stability and efficiency Garnett and Prince provided.
Sure, rookie Karl Anthony-Towns delivered another double-double game — 25 points and 10 rebounds — even though he described his performance as “awful,” “absolutely atrocious” and “terrible.” Sure, point guard Ricky Rubio for the third time reached 17 assists, which tied his career high and the franchise record shared with five other players.
But it might have been Garnett’s defensive instincts and Prince’s play at both ends of the court that allowed the Wolves to win for the 12th time in 32 games, just four victories away from their 16 all of last season.
Prince scored six of his eight points in that fourth quarter and provided the defense that held Jazz star Gordon Hayward to 14 points on a night Utah played without injured Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Dante Exum.
“I felt like this was a game we just had to have,” Mitchell said, explaining how he played for Wednesday’s win after he had willingly accepted youthful mistakes in Saturday’s loss.
At one point, Garnett positioned himself to contest a shot at the rim that Mitchell deemed would have been a dunk or a possible three-point play if he had only youngsters on the floor. Mitchell played Garnett nearly 18 minutes, Prince nearly 25 and each played more than half the fourth quarter, even though Mitchell said he’s wary of wearing each veteran out.
“I hate to play him the amount of minutes I played him tonight,” Mitchell said about Prince, “but he just stabilizes things. You see the difference when KG and Tayshaun are on the floor with Ricky. We’re just so much better defensively.
‘‘Our young guys will get there eventually, but there’s no way to fast-forward the 20 years’ experience KG has and the 14 Tayshaun has.”
Garnett and Prince were awarded two of three mini-disco balls someone places in lockers after home victories; Towns got the other.
“Man, to be honest with you I didn’t know what it’s for,” Prince said. “One thing is, I play the same way every day. I go out there on one end of the floor and if something happens on the other end, I’ll take it. But I’m not looking for it.”
Rubio credited the two veterans for showing a young team how to win Wednesday, noting how his team “kind of blew it up” with young players exclusively on the floor in Saturday’s final quarter.
“They’re smart, they know how to play,” Rubio said. “They’ve been playing this game a long time with success. We have to learn to do it. They’re here to teach us and lead us, but at the end of the day we have to win games.”
Rubio assisted on two of Prince’s three fourth-quarter baskets. Did he hope to squeeze one more assist out Wednesday night after he once again reached 17?
“No,” Rubio said. “I mean, it’s coming.”