PREVIEW: Minnesota Timberwolves eye 2-game sweep of Thunder

Feb 5, 2021; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard D’Angelo Russell (0) shoots a three point basket as Oklahoma City Thunder center Al Horford (42) defends during the second half at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Minnesota won 106-103. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

It didn’t matter how many players were on the other side or how much the opponent was struggling.

The Minnesota Timberwolves avoided another blown fourth-quarter lead in a 106-103 win over the host Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.

The teams meet again Saturday at Oklahoma City in the second night of a back-to-back, and Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders hopes his team can start to build some momentum after earning just its fourth win in the past 20 games.

Minnesota got a tiebreaking 3-pointer from D’Angelo Russell with 3.7 seconds remaining to pull off the win.

“I thought we executed better down the stretch when we needed to,” Saunders said. “The last play was executed to exactly what we wanted to get in terms of matchups, in terms of our action. … I just thought we stayed together through the ups and down.”

The Timberwolves have lost six games this season when leading entering the fourth quarter. On Friday, despite letting a nine-point, fourth-period lead disappear, they held on when Oklahoma City’s Hamidou Diallo missed an attempt at a tying 3-pointer at the buzzer.

“It’s hard to win in this league,” Saunders said. “But I also like to try to keep the same mindset win and lose … and that’s judge the performance. There’s still a lot of things that we could’ve done better, and I feel we need to come out with a heightened sense of urgency in a lot of ways.”

Malik Beasley led Minnesota with 24 points in the win, and Russell finished with 21.

Read More: RECAP: D’Angelo Russell’s late offense leads Minnesota Timberwolves past Thunder

The Thunder were severely short-handed on Friday. Not only were they missing starters Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and George Hill because of injuries, but Theo Maledon’s absence due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols left Oklahoma City without a point guard available.

Diallo was forced to handle point-guard duties for much of the game.

Diallo hadn’t registered more than four assists in any of his first 117 NBA games, but he had eight by halftime. He finished with 16 points and 10 assists for his second double-double of the season.

“He’s gonna make the right play, he’s gonna get you involved, and it’s gonna be fun because he’s gonna go right at the other team,” center Isaiah Roby said.

“You know when he’s out there with you it’s gonna be a fun time. You’re gonna be able to play aggressive, play fast-paced, up-tempo basketball. That’s what we love to do.”

Diallo might need to run the point again Saturday night.

While Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said the injuries to Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort weren’t likely to keep either out long term, neither’s status for Saturday was clear.

Gilgeous-Alexander has missed consecutive games with a left knee sprain. Dort missed his first game of the season Friday because of left knee soreness after sustaining an injury Wednesday in the first quarter of the Thunder’s win over the Houston Rockets.

Al Horford, who scored a game-high 26 points Friday, has kept Oklahoma City afloat recently. Horford is 16 of 24 from behind the 3-point arc in the past five games, and he averaged 18.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and four assists per contest in that span.

The Timberwolves figure to be without Karl-Anthony Towns for the 12th consecutive game. Towns is closing in on returning after testing positive for COVID-19, but there is no timetable for his return.

Jarrett Culver has missed six consecutive games for the Timberwolves due to a left ankle sprain.

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–Field Level Media