MINNEAPOLIS – Chris Johnson packed a bag. One bag.
Just 24 hours before his career night Saturday in Minneapolis, Johnson was arriving from California, two days removed from his most recent game with the Santa Cruz Warriors.
Just 48 hours before Mickael Gelabale’s 11-point night at the Target Center, he was fresh off a plane from Spain, too tired even to schlep over to the arena and chat with his friend from the French Olympic team, the Clippers’ Ronny Turiaf.
Both Minnesota Timberwolves knew what they were getting into upon arrival: 10-day contracts on a battered, flailing team with just eight healthy players at the time. Maybe a chance at something more, but it wasn’t likely. Neither, though, could have had any concept of what awaited them.
No one could have possibly predicted the Timberwolves’ 92-79 win over Houston on Saturday, even with the Rockets on a six-game slide and at the tail end of a back-to-back. The Timberwolves had lost five in a row, after all, and were hemorrhaging players at a faster clip than they were games. But as unlikely as the victory was, the way Minnesota got there was even less probable.
The Timberwolves went into the fourth quarter up, 63-59. Johnson had two points, Gelabale one. Neither had made a glaring error, but neither looked like anything more than a passable 10-day contract addition, either.
And then it happened.
Johnson exploded for 13 more points, finishing the night with a career-high 15. Then Gelabale was in the corner, and in the corner again, and then all of the sudden he had 11. Then there were alley-oops and dunks – and a lot of free throws, too, but points are points – and gradually there were chants of “MVP” spreading around the arena every time Johnson stepped to the line. They didn’t get to Johnson, but he heard them. He couldn’t have not.
“I heard it,” Johnson said. “I don’t agree at all.”
Needless to say, the cheers didn’t go to his head. He’s been around before, in Portland and Boston and New Orleans. He knows what to expect from these things, how to pack, how to approach them. But nothing could have prepared him for Saturday night, for a team so exhausted that his mere presence, along with Gelabale’s, was the spark that lifted it.
“I don’t think I drew it up that way,” he said with a laugh after he and Gelabale combined for 23 of 29 Timberwolves points in the final quarter.
And as nonsensical as it all sounds, these two players via California and Spain who joined the team just hours before Saturday’s game and then dominated it, there are some shreds of sanity, at least when you step back for a moment. The Timberwolves’ healthy players aren’t bad; they’re tired. They have plenty of weapons, from Andrei Kirilenko to Ricky Rubio, enough to round out a starting lineup but not to bolster it. But with Johnson and Gelabale, they got a spark, and at least for a night it was enough to slow things down, or speed them up, or wrestle the team into some kind of workable fashion.
“With them on the floor, they’ve got the energy,” Kirilenko said. “They didn’t stop. They keep playing, and they kind of force everybody. Oh, look at you guys running. I have to run.”
“I think they’ve been active, and after like two, three scores, we started looking for them because they started getting hot. That’s the normal in the game, when you feel like your teammates start making points, you’re like, aha, I found the right guy, I’m going to pass it to him.”
There was an element of chemistry there that was somewhat surprising, though. Johnson lauded the guards for getting him to where he needed to be, and both he and Gelabale not only had their fair share of good shots, but they also hit them. The offense was simplified, and between Rubio, Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea, there was enough guidance to toss the new players in and direct them piecemeal.
In the moment, Saturday’s game was a statement. It was a sense of relief for the seven players in the locker room who’d been there before and a license for another chance for the two who hadn’t. The win lifted the sense of impending doom that had lingered over the team for a week because all it can take is one win to dispel that kind of fog. It made Rubio smile and Kirilenko giddy and the air in the locker room a thousand pounds lighter.
The effect was instant, but it won’t be permanent. Saturday was not quite a fluke but definitely a taste of the best-case scenario. It highlighted that the talent on hand, just in too few bodies, and that relief from even halfway-decent players can have the most staggering of consequences. The challenge will be to keep it up, even when the fruits of EuroCup and the D-League aren’t going off for career nights.
For now, though, the chances remain alive. For the Timberwolves to win. For the 10-day contracts to parlay into something better. For there to be some notion of fun among this injured team.
When acting coach Terry Porter wrapped up his postgame comments, team owner Glen Taylor was waiting in the back of the room. He isn’t normally there, but nothing about Saturday was normal. As Porter exited, he stopped for the requisite handshake.
“I just came back to see how you did it,” Taylor said.