MINNEAPOLIS -- Fire up the bandwagon. Jump on. I'm driving. There were 19,000 others on board Monday night as the Wolves owner, Glen Taylor, played with some brand new race cars (Rubio, Barea, and D. Williams) the day after Christmas. A couple of dependable Tonka trucks carried the workload (Love and Beasley) and the stocking stuffer was a screaming coach with a long history of success.
In a league long on hype and hyperbole, I assure you it is not a stretch to say the Target Center atmosphere was electric; the first time since the 2004 playoffs when a Wolves fan could get a few goosebumps. No one left mid-way through the third and everyone in the arena was standing the entire last minute as the Wolves pushed the Thunder, perhaps the team to beat in the Western Conference, to the brink.
I took in the game with the rest of the media, a bounce pass away from the Wolves bench. I went in with the notion that this year was going to be different. It was the same notion I started the Vikings season with. But this basketball team is different. It's better on paper and it is better on hardwood. The last half of the fourth quarter featured three newcomers (Rubio, Barea, and Williams) plus the Tonka trucks. The team that used to fold actually fought.
Here are a few things I clicked into my laptop during the game:
Ten minutes before the game, the only guy on the court is working out in a Wolves t-shirt and shorts. He's burying 3's and dunking between those shots. I didn't recognize him. Did you know Martell Webster has a Mohawk now? He got done shooting, walked over to a teen in a wheel chair, took off his shoes, signed them and handed them over. I thought it was funny that he took the $20 insoles out before handing over the $150 sneakers, but it was a classy move. Pretty cool to see.
Two Thunder players jack up airballs. Crowd influence?
Darko jacks up Kendrick Perkins. It's a 2 hand shove to the chest that knocks him flat on his duff. Darko? Fired up? This drew a big response from the 5 guys wearing white t-shirts, each with a black, block letter on it. They spelled D-A-R-K-O.
JJ Barea enters the game for the Wolves. He's hard to watch. Literally, he's so fast that he's hard to watch. I'd guess he can run a 40 yard dash in 3 seconds flat. He somehow catches a Thunder player on a fast break. Ex-Gopher Greats Quincy Lewis and Kevin Lynch give me a good explanation on what a clear path foul is. Barea did not commit one.
Rubio enters with 2:30 left in the quarter. The place goes nuts. He doesn't score in the first half, but he did have a few assists and boards.
Went to the souvenir stand (bought a bib for my daughter... it was only $5). There was a line and it was 6 people deep. This was also a new experience. Saw two people buy Rubio jerseys and a couple people purchase some Derrick Williams t-shirts. There was also a guy who walked by in tights, sporting a full Superman costume.
Rubio ignites the crowd. Hits a pair of free throws, throws a perfect, thread-the-needle bounce pass to Derrick Williams, who is sprinting to the hoop. It looks like the rookie might hit his head on the rim; he throws it down and the place erupts. More bedlam in the stands with 3 minutes left and the game is down to the wire. Rubio draws a charge and then hits an elbow jumper.
Michael Beasley wants the big shot. He drives the lane, down 2 with less than 10 seconds left and comes up 2 inches short. Looks like there's contact.
New Head Coach Rick Adelman can't talk. He's hoarse. He's lost his voice. He was yelling at the refs all game. When asked if Beasley was fouled, he said if the refs didn't call it, than it wasn't a foul.
Michael Beasley answered the question the same way in the locker room. He could have answered it much differently in my opinion. He's not only becoming a man, you can tell, he wants to the be "the man."
A wide-eyed, mop-topped, scraggily bearded Rubio sits in front of his locker and talks about the biggest game of his professional career, which happens to be several years old at this point. He says he felt comfortable and welcome. It's a good start.
I talked with a couple of members of the Wolves business brass after the game. I made a remark about the team's energy and the crowd's energy. I figured they'd be quite pleased with how the season began. Ted Johnson, V.P. and Chief Marketing Officer, smiled and said "we were so close to winning that one."
New season. New team. New energy and new expectations.