Playing on a young team where he’s one of the elder statesmen at just 24, D’Angelo Russell knows some of his teammates have probably not seen him hit the type of late-game shots he’s become somewhat known for knocking down.
“Probably just heard about it,” Russell said.
And that only goes so far with guys. Seeing is believing. And, quite frankly, there hasn’t been much to see this season. The Timberwolves’ late-game offense has largely been horrendous, and when Russell has had shots to potentially bail his team out, he hasn’t done it.
In a game in which Minnesota didn’t play particularly well against a foe featuring just eight healthy players, the Wolves were tied in the final seconds with Oklahoma City and staring down the barrel of another late-game blown lead and embarrassing loss, when Russell rose up for a look at a game-winning triple.
ICE. IN. HIS. VEINS. pic.twitter.com/cZfzoodMbj
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) February 6, 2021
Oklahoma City’s Hamidou Diallo missed an open look at the horn that would’ve sent the game to overtime, and Minnesota finally pulled a close contest out.
In the moments after Russell hit the shot, he looked up and took a deep breath. Finally, sweet relief?
“(Heck) yeah,” Russell said. “How many games we could’ve won if the ball just bounced our way? For us to finally get one, we can run them off when we get that opportunity. We feel a little more comfortable and familiar in that position so, I’m excited.”
And with that shot, Russell said, came a little credibility with his teammates.
“So guys can trust it,” he said, “trust I’m going to make the right play for us.”
That shot going in was about the only difference in Minnesota’s victory versus its past losses. Russell noted the Wolves “didn’t go out there and take it.”
In a game where the Wolves could have set the tone early with a strong start and possibly discouraged the depleted Thunder, they instead dug an early 8-0 hole. It was a back-and-forth fight from there.
“I feel we could’ve come out with a heightened sense of urgency, especially in a situation like this,” Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders said.
The closing games conundrum for Minnesota continues. The Wolves led by six with 3 minutes, 30 seconds to play, but then the offense again sputtered and they could never seem to make the one play to close the game.
Thunder forward Al Horford missed a potential game-tying 3 with 30 seconds left, and Minnesota (6-16) could have clinched the game with the rebound. Instead, Oklahoma City (9-12) got it, and Horford got another look from deep, which he cashed.
On the ensuing offensive possession, the Wolves turned the ball over, but Oklahoma City missed in transition to set up the possession in which Russell scored. Still, Oklahoma City had a good look to tie it at the buzzer because the Wolves messed up with their situational defense.
Immediately after the game in the locker room, Saunders went over the film with his team on how it could have defended better on Diallo’s miss.
“I just thought we stayed together through the ups and downs,” Saunders said. “There’s still a lot of things that we could’ve done better.”
On the bright side, Saunders said the last play, which Russell scored on, was “executed to exactly what we wanted to get.”
“Late in the game, hey, DLo’s been a big shot maker his entire career,” Saunders said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence and faith in DLo.”
Russell noted after Wednesday’s loss to San Antonio that he takes it upon himself to be aggressive late in games, and will shoulder the result, good or bad. It’d largely been bad this season, but he’s never shied away from the big moment.
Perhaps that stems back to his rookie season, when Russell played for the Lakers. He missed a potential game-winner early that season against Minnesota at Target Center, and approached Kobe Bryant, who was in his last NBA season after the game.
“I said, ‘Man, listen, I’ve made plenty of them. I’ve missed plenty of them, too,’ ” Bryant told Russell. ” ‘It’s your first shot, but it won’t be your last, so on you go.’ ”
Russell won’t ever forget that, and the message came in handy again Friday night.
“After I heard him say that one time, my head was through the sky,” Russell said. “All I had to do was hear that, so it gave me the confidence to take and make more shots and always believe I could make any shot I’m taking, so that’s a great guy to hear that from, and I just kept running with it.”