Shaquille O’Neal was holding court at a press event during All-Star weekend, offering his analysis and opinions about all things NBA, when he was asked about Karl-Anthony Towns, the superb rookie of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“Don’t nobody watch Minnesota,” O’Neal bellowed with a playfully dismissive chuckle, reaching for an imaginary remote control. “I see the Timberwolves on TV and … click.”
Maybe it’s time to change the channel again. O’Neal was among the many watching Tuesday night when the young Timberwolves stunned the history-chasing Golden State Warriors at home with a 124-117 overtime win.
The performance took a message the Timberwolves have been saying locally for two months – that a downtrodden franchise is turning the corner on the backs of the best compilation of young talent in the league – and blared it through the megaphone of a nationally televised triumph over the defending champions that dealt a blow to Golden State’s pursuit of the NBA’s single-season wins record.
“Like I told our guys before the game, very few opportunities do you get the chance, when you’re not a playoff team, to do something special,” Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell said. “And I thought tonight, against this team, with this crowd in this arena, just proud of our guys.”
It was just the sixth national TV game of the season for Minnesota, one of the worst teams in the Western Conference. Playing in a small market and wearing a name on their chests that has been synonymous with failure for more than a decade, it was easy to see why so many have been slow to notice what is building.
In Andrew Wiggins and Towns, the Wolves have the last two No. 1 overall draft picks, both of whom have shown signs of being able to carry a franchise. They also have second-year guard Zach LaVine, who has won two straight slam dunk titles and solidified himself as a starting-caliber shooting guard in his second season.
“The talent they have is foundational,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in March when Golden State escaped Minnesota with a five-point win. “Sometimes you have some good, young players you can’t figure out what you’re going to do with them all. With this group, the pieces fit. Keep them together, let them grow.”
The Wolves have four players 21 or younger – Wiggins (20.8 points per game), Towns (18.2), LaVine (13.9) and Tyus Jones (4.2) – accounting for 54.4 points and 101.1 minutes per game. Those numbers dwarf any other group of similarly aged players on one team in NBA history and there have certainly been growing pains.
The Wolves went through a miserable stretch from late December into mid-January, losing 14 of 15 games as they struggled to balance youthful energy and inexperience while also playing veterans like Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Martin.
At the All-Star break, the Wolves turned the team over to the pups. The new starting lineup of Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Towns and Dieng is 10-13.
The group has struggled mightily on defense, and there has been inconsistency while they learn how to play together. But there are also nights like Tuesday in Oakland, when Wiggins, Towns and Shabazz Muhammad helped Minnesota outscore Golden State 52-33 over the final 18 minutes of the game and snap the Warriors’ 114-game win streak when they held a lead of 15 points or more.
There is still a lot of work to be done. The bench needs serious help, owner Glen Taylor has to decide on Mitchell’s future and the young players have to figure out how to play consistently. The league’s longest-running playoff drought will reach 12 years this season.
But the core is in place. That much was clear on Tuesday night.
“It means a lot to us,” Wiggins said. “It’s a process. It’s not just one game for us. This game is leading into the future, leads into all the games next year. It’s a big game for us because they didn’t lay down. They were up 15, they were up 17, and we kept fighting. They’re playing for history and we’re just trying to get in the way of it.”
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