Karl-Anthony Towns went down with a wrist injury with five minutes to play against Utah on Dec. 26, and D’Angelo Russell stepped up to the plate, scoring nine points over the final 4 minutes, 53 seconds to lead the Timberwolves to an upset road win at Utah.
That’s what Russell was brought to Minnesota to be and do, a star to pair with Towns who could carry the load when needed.
“D-Lo is a closer, man,” Towns said after the game that night. “He just knows how to put the ball in the bucket, especially in crunch time.”
Fast forward to Wednesday night at Target Center. Minnesota led Orlando by seven when Russell re-entered the game with 4:37 to play. From there, the Wolves’ offense ran through Russell. Fellow point guard Jordan McLaughlin sometimes brought the ball up the floor as Wolves coach Ryan Saunders looked for ways to combat the way Orlando was trapping Russell off pick and rolls, but Russell was still the focal point.
In desperate need of a win that appeared to be in hand, the Wolves needed Russell to close. Instead, he helped open the door for Orlando’s wild comeback. Minnesota’s offensive possessions after Russell re-entered went as follows:
- Russell passed a “grenade” to Naz Reid with two seconds left on the shot clock, which led to a shot clock violation.
- Russell turned the ball over.
- Russell didn’t touch the ball on a fast break opportunity.
- Russell fired up an air ball from the mid range.
- Russell passed to Josh Okogie, who then turned the ball over.
- Russell missed a mid-range shot.
- Russell assisted on a driving layup by McLaughlin.
- Russell helped set up a Naz Reid layup by passing to an open McLaughlin.
- Russell had his shot blocked out of bounds, and Malik Beasley missed a shot off the ensuing in-bounds play.
Not exactly the former all-star’s finest hour. Orlando, which was riding a six-game losing skid, stormed back to win on a last-second triple by Cole Anthony.
After closing strong in each of their first two games, both victories, the Wolves have struggled in the few games they’ve had a chance to win late. That falls on a lot of people. Beasley has largely disappeared in crunch time, as well, and as head coach, the buck stops with Saunders when late-game execution is lacking. But it’s also fair to point a finger at Russell, who’s paid handsomely to put opponents away with a late-game scoring prowess that has gone missing in recent weeks.
Since the Wolves started 2-0, they’ve only been in four more games in which there was “clutch” time, defined as a game was within five points either way with five minutes left. Russell is 4 for 13 (30.8) from the field in those four games, 15th among the 19 players who have taken 10-plus shots in clutch time since Jan. 5. In those games, Minnesota has been outscored by 16 points in Russell’s 16 clutch-time minutes.
Some questioned whether McLaughlin, another point guard, should have shared the floor with Russell in the final few minutes, which has merit given how Minnesota’s small-ball lineup was crushed on the glass. Some have argued Russell isn’t being used properly, but Saunders noted Thursday that the same looks Russell was missing late in Wednesday’s loss are the ones he hit to seal the victory in Utah.
“So, hey, you’ve got to be able to handle it when you lose if you enjoy it when you win,” Saunders said.
Late-game shot making determines who wins and loses many NBA games. Russell said he’s giving it his all right now, and attacking the Wolves’ situation “with full effort.”
Minnesota could get Russell better looks, but at the end of the day it’s on him to hit the shots that matter most. Russell noted veteran NBA teams ramp up their level of play in the fourth quarter of tight games, while Minnesota has displayed a tendency to relax. The Wolves are young, so that likely plays into it, but Russell is in his sixth season.
“I see so much and what I see, I can’t express it every time vocally, so I’ve got to go out and show it with my play as an example, and hopefully it’s contagious and guys can watch and fall into it,” Russell said. “But it’s only so much I can do.”
Russell acknowledged there’s a long list of excuses that are working against Minnesota right now, and he’s right. Without Towns, among others, no one is expecting the Wolves to be a good team. But they shouldn’t be this bad, either. Teams overcome difficult circumstances to win games every now and then, usually because of their best players.
“There’s only so much that I can do, there’s only so much that each individual can do,” Russell said. “Going back to the drawing board and trying to figure it out is the only thing I think we can do at this point.”