<
>

Victorious Timberwolves had 'sixth man on the floor'

play
Rubio: 'It's been tough' (1:18)

Ricky Rubio chats with J.A. Adande on the loss of Flip Saunders and how he pulled through to carry the Wolves to a win over the Lakers on opening night. (1:18)

LOS ANGELES -- You want to believe every single thing the Minnesota Timberwolves said Wednesday night, even the parts that can't be verified. You want to buy the reason Karl-Anthony Towns gave for Lou Williams missing a shot that could have won the game for the Los Angeles Lakers, the ball bouncing harmlessly away to give the Timberwolves a 112-111 victory.

"Nine times out of ten he hits that," Towns said. "I think the one time ... we had a sixth man on the floor."

You want to believe because you want the Timberwolves to have something, anything, to show from the death of their coach and team president, Flip Saunders, at the beginning of the week. Even if it's just a regular-season NBA game.

We can allow them this, can't we? Let them attribute this to that which we can neither quantify nor disprove. There are plenty of facts for the rest of us to chew on.

Ricky Rubio followed the newfound accuracy on his jump shot to 28 points. Watching jumper after jumper drop was so impressive it almost distracted from his 14 assists. Towns, the No. 1 overall pick, had a double-double in his NBA debut with 14 points and 12 rebounds. The Timberwolves overcame a 16-point deficit and hugged and high-fived their way off the purple-and-gold Staples Center court.

Those feelings were real.

"We're elated," Minnesota coach Sam Mitchell. "Coach would be proud of them. I know he's looking down and he's proud of these young guys, the way they fought."

Again, we'll have to take Mitchell's word for it. We want to believe that the end isn't the end, that there's still happiness and even influence beyond.

The Timberwolves had all sorts of reminders that life goes on for those left behind. Everything from heartbreak to inconveniences (such as the different configuration of the replacement airplane they took to Los Angeles after pushing their departure from Minneapolis back a day.) For a moment they were worried they would face the conflict of being in Denver on Friday while the services for Saunders were to be held, and they inquired with the NBA about the possibility of postponing the game. It turned out the services will be held over the weekend instead; mini-crisis averted.

But the Timberwolves had been so inundated with sorrowful news and difficult decisions that they barely had time for the usual joy or anticipation the start of the season brings. Finally Towns created his own realm of isolation, turning on the shower in his hotel bathroom and sitting alone with his thoughts, absorbing the day of his first NBA game and everything it took to get there.

"I thought about every coach," Towns said "I thought about every wind sprint. I thought all the gyms they played in. I sat there for 20 minutes, water hitting me, thinking about how much work I've put into this moment, just to be here, to be wearing this jersey, to be part of this fraternity."

And when he finally hit the court hours later, he showed it was possible for a man who never coached him in a game to keep coaching him after he was gone.

"I did everything I can to make sure I played as hard for him," Towns said. "I was so emotional at the end of the game. I just remember promising him that I wanted to bring as many wins to this franchise as I can, and as much as this franchise can hold. I started my promise out right tonight."

One victory. One victory that will stick in the minds of Towns and everyone else who contributed, from Kevin Martin's 23 points off the bench to the exhortations of veterans Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller during the timeouts. The first victory after they lost the man who won 654 NBA games, Flip Saunders.

"Even though he's gone," Rubio said, "he will stay with us."

It's technically impossible. And yet it feels like an absolute fact.