Lessons for young Wolves go into overtime mode

Timberwolves, including Zach LaVine (far right), watch as the Lakers' Jordan Clarkson takes his game-winning free throws in overtime Wednesday night.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders had nary a bone to pick with referee Bennett Salvatore after his foul call sent Jordan Clarkson to the line with less than a second remaining in Wednesday night’s overtime loss to the Lakers.

"He fouled him," Saunders said simply, referring to Zach LaVine’s nudge that allowed Clarkson, chasing a loose ball off a teammate’s miss, to sink the game-winning free throws with 0.3 seconds left.

So, 20-year-old, supremely-confident, sometimes-recalcitrant Zach, did you?

"Hell no," the rookie said afterward. "He can’t call that with 0.3 seconds left."

But . . .

"But, I mean, I go back to me. I can’t let him even get near the ball. I’ve got to make that wide-open 3 in the corner. If I would’ve made that, we wouldn’t have been in that situation."

Two days later, with Minnesota back on the road Friday night against Houston, it matters little. The Wolves retained the NBA’s second-worst record and hopes of landing a top-three pick in the draft. The Lakers stayed in their own, let’s-get-this-season-over-with straits.

But for LaVine, and the young players still healthy enough to take part in this waning, developmental campaign, it was a teaching moment — the kind of which they’ve had plenty lately.

Wednesday’s 101-99 defeat was the Wolves’ third overtime game in their previous four outings — a weeklong stretch. They’re 2-1 in those extra-frame contests despite dressing a league-minimum eight players and, in the past two games, playing just seven of them.

"The good thing about us is we’re young," rookie of the year candidate Andrew Wiggins grinned. "We don’t get tired easily."

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Wiggins can speak from experience. With more players wearing street clothes than game garb, he’s played more than 48 minutes the past two games and averaged 44.7 minutes per contest in the past four.

Even with his spry, wiry frame — which endured just 35 collegiate games last year, compared to 71 NBA outings this season — shouldering a taxing load, he’s eclipsed 20 points in three of those four matchups.

Since Dec. 1, he’s logged 2,042 minutes. That’s more than any other NBA player.

He’s battled fatigue at times. But lately, Wiggins says, he’s doing just fine. One of his main goals is to finish with an "82" next to his name in the games-played column.

"I feel good," Wiggins said after notching a game-high 27 points Wednesday. "I took an ice bath yesterday. My body feels pretty good."

LaVine hasn’t worn down much, either.

In the previous four contests starting with last Wednesday’s overtime victory at New York, the UCLA product’s averaging 19 points on 38.7 percent shooting (47.1 percent from 3-point range) and 4.5 assists per game. Monday at Utah, he hit a pair of 3s in the final 30 seconds to send the game to overtime.

Gorgui Dieng’s been steady as ever, too. The only other player besides Wiggins not to miss a game, the second-year center has scored in double figures each of his past four contests and ranks 11th in the NBA in blocked shots and 20th in rebounds.

It’s a small window in what’s been a volatile rookie season. But with all the nip-tuck scenarios, Saunders sees his youngsters learning on the job, which was the core of Minnesota’s 2014-15 outlook even before all the injuries.

"You learn how to play in those situations," Saunders said. "Is it good we’re able to find a way to get back in, and we’ve won some games and had opportunities? Yeah."

It certainly beats getting blown out and going on a 15-game losing streak like the Wolves (16-55) did earlier this season.

"It puts us in a position we haven’t been in this year, really," Wiggins said. "I think we’re learning from it."

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