Getting over the loss of Flip Saunders, one of the most important figures in the history of the Minnesota Timberwolves, is going to be very difficult. Starting the season with a 112-111 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, as Ricky Rubio plays like someone with something to prove finally, while Kobe Bryant shows he doesn’t change and Lou Williams misses an easy winning shot, is a nice way to at least forget about the sadness.
Cancer took away Saunders just before the season begins, although we later found out he had nothing to do with the team for quite some time – his condition prevented him from even getting out of bed. The Timberwolves haven’t won a lot of games over the last two years, but Saunders was always a popular figure among the players, and he helped bring back Kevin Garnett for two retirement years on the team where it all began for him.
Rubio scored 28 points to go with 14 assists in one of his best career games. He does have special motivation against the Lakers and Bryant. His injury against them a few years ago possibly denied the Timberwolves a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. They haven’t gotten close and have been mostly stocking up on young talent in recent years. Maybe this is the season start making the right moves towards the end of that drought.
Besides Rubio, Kevin Martin thrived from his new role on the bench, scoring 23 points. It makes the Timberwolves defense better, as a big lineup that included Tayshaun Prince and Andrew Wiggins with Kevin Garnett and Karl-Anthony Towns shows the intent the Timberwolves have, although Garnett can’t be on the floor for too long without causing damage, and the same goes for Prince. Towns had a nice NBA debut with 14 points and 10 rebounds and Nemanja Bjelica didn’t complain about his with 8 points and 5 rebounds, although he did pick up too many fouls in 23 minutes (5).
The Timberwolves are going to be fun to watch this season, but figuring out the right rotations and lineups is going to be the main key here. There’s talent and variety on this team, but consistency, especially from key players like Wiggins and Zach LaVine, who was also on the bench despite of what we saw in preseason, might be the most important thing to make this team relevant again. Missing the playoffs this year will make it 12 seasons since their last appearance.
As for the Lakers? Bryant did lead the team with 24 points, but he shot just 8-of-24 from the field, and showed that all the preseason talk about changing and moving into a new direction means nothing. Bryant didn’t take the last shot in the game, Lou Williams did. But Bryant is going to make it very difficult for Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell among others to try and develop without him. In his opinion, this is still his show, regardless if the Lakers as an organization can’t wait for the day when he’s no longer part of the team.
The game ended with some weird play calling for the Lakers, although with Byron Scott as the head coach, it’s not surprising. Kobe Bryant calling a timeout while Julius Randle is going for the basket? Ryan Kelly playing big minutes in crunch time? Calling this a tank job is wrong, it’s just the first game, but the way towards another awful season seems quite clear.