T-wolves honor Flip before loss in home opener to Blazers
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Timberwolves cried their way through an emotional pregame tribute to fallen coach Flip Saunders and honored him with a stirring first quarter in their home opener.
They seemed to hit a wall after that, and it's hard to say whether it was a week of grieving or Damian Lillard's brilliance that was most to blame.
Lillard had 34 points and seven assists, and the Portland Trail Blazers beat Minnesota 106-101 on Monday night in the Timberwolves' first home game since Saunders died on Oct. 25.
''I was drained from the beginning,'' T-wolves forward Karl-Anthony Towns said. ''I was crying the whole pregame. I was emotionally drained coming out. I just tried to use my energy in a good way.''
Lillard made 14 of 25 shots, C.J. McCollum scored 18 points and Al-Farouq Aminu had 17 points and nine rebounds for Portland, which trailed by 17 points in the first quarter after an inspired start by Minnesota.
''It was an emotional video,'' Lillard said of the memorial ceremony. ''It was even emotional for me and I didn't know him personally, but from afar I always respected him and I've always known who he was. They played with heavy hearts like I said, and we expected a heavy fight, we expected a lot of energy from the crowd.''
Kevin Martin scored 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 12 points, nine assists and nine rebounds for the Timberwolves two days after they attended Saunders' funeral. They whittled a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to three with 10 seconds to play. But Martin was stripped while trying to shoot a 3 and the Blazers hung on.
The game started 30 minutes late due to the pregame memorial service for Saunders, the president of basketball operations, coach and minority owner who died after complications with Hodgkin lymphoma. He was laid to rest during a private funeral on Saturday, so Monday night was the first chance most Minnesota fans had to pay their respects.
Tears were shed and prayers were offered for Saunders in a touching tribute video.
''It was a tough day, but we're not going to use that as an excuse,'' T-wolves coach Sam Mitchell said.
If the T-wolves were overcome with emotion, they didn't show it early. They jumped to an 8-1 lead and led by 17 points in the first quarter, with Rubio orchestrating the offense and everyone not named Lillard struggling to find their shot.
Lillard has been reluctant to dominate the ball too much early this season, preferring to help a young and revamped Blazers roster without LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum find its bearings. That restraint resulted in a couple of ugly losses to Phoenix, and he was more aggressive against the T-wolves.
His pull-up 3 in transition gave the Blazers a 10-point lead with 5:39 to play, but Minnesota ripped off a 12-4 run to pull within two with 90 seconds left.
''I know some people were questioning about whether he had to strike a balance or not,'' Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, ''but he's the ultimate competitor, and he carried the team.''
The T-wolves appeared to tie the game on a putback by Andrew Wiggins with 54.5 seconds to play, but it was ruled offensive goaltending.
Trail Blazers: Stotts knew Saunders going back more than 20 years to their days in the CBA. ''The fact that Flip and I go back to those days 25 years ago and there's a special place for anyone who was in the CBA at that time and went on to have a career like he had,'' Stotts said. ... The Blazers outscored Minnesota 24-6 in second-chance points.
Timberwolves: Kevin Garnett received an early hook less than two minutes into the second half and had his left leg examined on the bench. But he was able to return in the fourth. He went scoreless with just one rebound in 17 minutes. ... The normally outstanding free throw shooter Martin missed three shots at the line.
The 15-minute pregame program was beautifully done. The video included appearances by Commissioner Adam Silver, Larry Bird, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Chauncey Billups and every one of the Timberwolves, except for Garnett. KG wanted to participate, but was too overcome with emotion to speak on camera. One of the most memorable moments was when a teary T-wolves GM Milt Newton recalled how Saunders would tell him that he loved him. ''I love you, too,'' Newton said. ''Rest in peace.''
The NBA revamped its replay system in the offseason, adding more referees in the replay center in New Jersey in hopes of speeding up the process. You never would've known that in the second half Monday night when several replays resulted in long waits for a final ruling. That included Wiggins' goaltending and a shot clock violation on the Blazers that was eventually ruled an inadvertent whistle. ''In the last two minutes, nothing went our way, including the 30 minutes it took to figure out a couple calls,'' Martin said. ''We'll learn from it.''
Trail Blazers: Visit Utah on Wednesday.
Timberwolves: Host Heat on Thursday.