With nowhere else to turn in the midst of COVID-19 outbreaks, the Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks might have found unlikely saviors in their bids to remain afloat during unprecedented times.
The unexpected stars will look to continue their surges Tuesday night, when the Timberwolves are slated to host the Knicks.
The Timberwolves will be completing a back-to-back set of home games after they overcame an 11-point halftime deficit Monday night to edge the Boston Celtics 108-103.
Nathan Knight made his first NBA start and posted his first double-double, while Jaylen Nowell scored a career-high 29 points for Minnesota.
The Knicks haven’t played since Saturday afternoon, when the resurgent Kemba Walker posted the first Christmas Day triple-double in franchise history in a 101-87 win over the visiting Atlanta Hawks.
The Timberwolves’ Monday victory snapped a two-game losing streak, and it came with perhaps the definition of a piecemeal lineup.
With seven players in COVID-19 protocols — including leading scorers Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell, who average a combined 65.3 points per game — Minnesota’s starting five entered Monday with a total of 22 starts this season.
Knight, who’d never played more than 26 minutes in his first 47 NBA games, set career highs with 20 points and 11 rebounds in 29 minutes. Nowell posted his second game with at least 20 points in 76 career games; the first came March 11 when he collected 28 points for the Timberwolves against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Greg Monroe, who signed a 10-day contract Monday, came off the bench and almost posted a double-double (11 points, nine rebounds) in his first NBA action since a playoff appearance with the Philadelphia 76ers in May 2019.
“Sometimes there’s not a lot of separation between a guy who’s in your rotation and a guy who’s out,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “And in some situations, some guys who are out of the rotation are actually better, more experienced players than the guys who are in.”
Walker, meanwhile, has spent the last four games proving how quickly a player can go from afterthought to indispensable.
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau — who led the Timberwolves to their most recent playoff berth in 2017-18 — made Walker a healthy scratch for 10 straight games. The loss of five players to COVID protocols subsequently left him no choice but to put the 31-year-old back in the starting lineup on Dec. 18.
All Walker has done over the last four games is average 26 points, 8.3 rebounds and seven assists. After scoring 44 points against the Washington Wizards on Thursday, Walker became just the seventh NBA player to post a triple-double on Christmas Day when he finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists Saturday.
The crowd at Madison Square Garden serenaded Walker, a Bronx native, with chants of “KEM-BA WALK-ER” as he exited the court late in the fourth quarter Saturday.
“Those are moments you dream about,” Walker said. “It was special just to be home with that New York on my chest. Being a New York City kid, born and raised, it felt amazing.”
–Field Level Media