Timberwolves celebrate Ryan Saunders' first win

- It’s only one game and it’s a small sample size, but there’s been a clear identity shift in the Minnesota Timberwolves since Sunday’s firing of Tom Thibodeau.

The Timberwolves are getting back to having fun and being positive, both on the court and the bench.

Ryan Saunders hasn’t had a lot of time to process the past week. He got a call after Sunday’s win over the L.A. Lakers to come back to the team offices, where he got the news Thibodeau had been fired. He was offered the interim head coaching job.

In his first game in charge of the sidelines Tuesday night, the Timberwolves got out with a 119-117 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. They got a road win over the current No. 3 team in the Western Conference, and Saunders got a bottled water bath in the locker room after. The team was all smiles after getting a big win in a tough road environment.

It's just one game, but it was worth celebrating.

“Heck of a night. It was a great night for our team, I was just happy to be a part of it. I just like to speak from the heart and I told the guys today that I appreciated how they responded and reacted. It’s something I’ll never forget,” Saunders said at Thursday’s practice.

One big change in the Timberwolves’ approach was getting out in transition and playing faster. They got Andrew Wiggins involved early and often, and in his first game with Saunders in charge, he went off for 40 points and 10 rebounds. He also shot 16-of-18 from the free-throw line.

Wiggins, like his teammates, played free and without worry of making a mistake. His big night was especially important with Karl-Anthony Towns battling foul trouble.

“Getting that win for Coach Ryan, that being his first official game as head coach, it felt good,” Wiggins said. “The energy was amazing, we all wanted it for him.”

One player who will likely benefit greatly with Saunders in charge is point guard Tyus Jones. The Apple Valley native has known his father, Flip Saunders, since his high school days. Flip Saunders worked a trade on NBA Draft night in 2015 to keep Tyus home.

Jones had an expanded role Tuesday with Derrick Rose out injured. He played 23 minutes, scored 10 points and added three assists. He finished the game a plus-13 and was poised in the most pressure situations in the fourth quarter.

Ryan Saunders and Jones formed a bond that started the night they traded for him. They watched film together, worked daily in practice and had countless conversations with each other. Jones said Saunders told him before the Oklahoma City game that he believed in him.

“That gives me the ultimate confidence when I’m out there to just play free, play my game, take shots that I feel are open, make different calls on what I see. I believe that he believes and trusts in me as a player, and there’s no better feeling than that,” Jones said.

The Timberwolves were having fun and enjoying each other’s company at Oklahoma City. It’s been a season to this point where the times that’s happened before Tuesday have been few and far between. Thibodeau is a grinder of a head coach. He’s loud, studies film constantly and expects a lot from his players.

Ryan Saunders grinds his own way, but makes sure to stay positive and keep his composure whenever possible from the bench. Those who watched Tuesday saw things we haven’t seen a lot of this season: Players smiling, high-fives from the head coach to players and a positive approach.

Jones said for his first game as the sideline leader, Ryan Saunders looked like “a natural, he looked like he had done it thousands of times before.”

“I think everyone sees how great of a guy he really is because of how important that game one was to the team. You saw the excitement and the pure joy on everyone’s faces for Ryan, that goes to the guy he is,” Jones said.

So what now? The Timberwolves have won three straight and are currently No. 11 in the Western Conference, but are just 2.5 games out of a playoff spot.

The Timberwolves host the Dallas Mavericks Friday night in what will be Saunders’ first home game as a head coach. It’ll be the first time he’ll pace the Target Center sidelines just like his father did for so many years.

What does he expect Friday night?

“I expect it to be the Timberwolves versus the Mavericks. That’s how we’re looking at it, there’s nothing more than that,” Saunders said. “I understand there’s other things on people’s minds, there’s somebody different standing on the sidelines, but ultimately it’s about us going against a team that we’re going to be battling for a playoff seed.”

It’s a different face leading the sidelines, but it’s a familiar one and a guy they genuinely enjoy playing for.

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