The Flip Saunders Effect

Minnesota 117, Atlanta 107

The Minnesota Timberwolves have not lost a game on the road. They won opening night at the Lakers by a point. The won at Denver by 17 points. They shocked the Bulls in overtime; the Bulls didn’t score in the extra period and the T-Wolves left Chicago in ecstasy with a 9 point win.

Tonight, the Wolves beat the Atlanta Hawks by 10 points as they let a 30 point halftime lead disappear but to their credit and their mental toughness, they retook the lead and never looked back thanks to the dominant performance of Andrew Wiggins who had 33 points, 8 points in the last five minutes of the quarter.

The Timberwolves are an excellent defensive team. Their defensive rating is 4th in the league partly due to their on-ball defenders. Wiggins is young but he came into the NBA as the best defender in the draft. He can guard anyone on the perimeter. Karl-Anthony Towns is a big guy who can defend. Tayshaun Prince has age and miles on him but his arms didn’t shrink. He still is long and uses defensive principles he learned under Larry Brown. Rubio is pretty worthless on defense but playing next to Wiggins means Wiggins covers up his mistakes. Gorgui Deng is long and athletic.

The Timberwolves are not the greatest offensive team with only three players on offense that can be trusted every night, Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Martin and Karl-Anthony Towns. Wiggins struggled early but his last two games he has been spectacular. He scored 31 points against the Bulls and even though he needed 27 shots to get there, his perimeter game intermixed with his off the dribble to the rim and dunking game set the tone. The Bulls had no answers and Wiggins went to the line 10 times, though he made only five free throws.

Tonight, against the Hawks, Wiggins played 37 minutes, made 68% of his shots, had 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, 1 block and 5 turnovers. When the game was on the line, after the T-Wolves choked away a 30 point lead, it was Wiggins who calmly took control. He made a free throw to give the Wolves a one point lead, 106-105. He drove through the lane and through just about everyone trying to guard him for his 28th point and a foul, giving him 29 points. He pulled up and hit a jumper with two minutes left to give the Wolves a four point lead which was the final dagger the Hawks could not come back from. To add insult to injury, his last basket came thirty seconds later, a pull up jumper and a six point lead that emptied the Phillips Arena building.

Kevin Martin had 13 points on 4-11 shooting and Karl-Anthony Towns had 17 points, taking seven shots and 8 free throws. The Wolves are 4-2 on the early season and if you want to thank anyone you can thank LeBron James and Flip Saunders.

LeBron James, coming home to Cleveland, needed a proven player and he talked Kevin Love into joining him and leaving his Minnesota dreams behind. But it was Flip Saunders who made the deal work, who grabbed Andrew Wiggins and Cleveland garbage Anthony Bennett who they have since waived. Wiggins was the focal point, a #1 pick the Wolves could develop. Flip also drafted Zach LaVine, a one year player out of UCLA who was an athletic freak but no one thought much of his game. Wiggins was Rookie of the Year. LaVine won the dunk contest. Both players developed away from the glare of the media. When luck came tumbling down and the Wolves had the #1 pick and selected Karl-Anthony Towns it felt as if everything was falling into its rightful place.

Except. It wasn’t. Flip Saunders, diagnosed with cancer, would never see the team he painstakingly built, and believed in, take the court, dying a few days before the season began. But as each game on the road comes, and as each game on the road ends, and the Timberwolves win, it is a reminder of who the architect was, who this season belongs to, and what the future has in store for this franchise that has seen so many dark days.

photo via llananba