MILWAUKEE – Early in the second quarter of the Timberwolves’ tight game against the Bucks on Saturday night, Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo was being guarded by Luol Deng when he spun to the baseline and went up for a dunk.
Anticipating the move, Wolves forward Anthony Tolliver moved over, jumped and stuffed Antetokounmpo.
The Wolves, playing without both Robert Covington and Karl-Anthony Towns, competed hard against the Bucks, who own the NBA’s best record, before ultimately losing. But Tolliver’s block on Antetokounmpo was the exclamation point on another good night by the Wolves bench.
One of interim coach Ryan Saunders’ strengths since taking over the team has been his pragmatism, his willingness to respond to injury issues by going deep into his bench and giving players who have spent much of the season sitting key minutes.
For the most part, those players have responded. To the point where, if the Wolves could get back to full health, Saunders would have a very deep roster.
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“We don’t lack talent,” Tolliver said. “That’s one thing for sure. We don’t lack the ability to score the ball. Once we are healthy, I think, we can be very dangerous.”
In the past two games, the Wolves bench has scored 117 points, 67 coming Saturday. In both the victory over New York on Friday and Saturday’s loss, all five bench players had positive plus/minus numbers while not one starter did.
When healthy, Derrick Rose has been productive all season, as has Tyus Jones. But Saunders has seen other reserves dust off the cobwebs and play well. He has made veteran Luol Deng a valuable part of the rotation; he played well in two games heading into the All-Star break — both victories — when Andrew Wiggins was sick.
The past two games, Keita Bates-Diop has played good defense, scored a little and is a plus-16. Tolliver has hit nine of 12 three-pointers and scored 33 points.
“That was one of the things we said going into the year,” said Jones, who scored nine points with nine assists Saturday. “We felt we had improved our bench play. And obviously the [Jimmy Butler] trade, we added three more players. We’ve had an injury spell. But if we can get back to full strength here, we like our chances night in and night out.”
Both before and after Saturday’s game, Saunders lauded his players’ ability to stay ready while not playing.
For Deng and Tolliver, both veterans, this is not surprising. But Bates, a rookie, has played in only a handful of games with the Wolves. But he played well over the weekend, particularly on defense.
“When you tell a guy, ‘Hey, stay ready,’ ” Saunders said, “a lot of times, they hear it but don’t necessarily really live it. Keita stayed ready. We know we gained confidence in him.”
That said, Tolliver admitted to being frustrated at times this season.
“It’s a part of the NBA,” he said. “But there is some frustration. Because I know what I can contribute on a nightly basis. Not to say I’m going to get 15, 16, 17 every night. But I know I’m capable on any given night. Not only offensively but defensively. … Yeah, it gets frustrating a little bit. But I’m trying to stay professional, do my job whenever I get a chance.”
Given how he and the rest of the Wolves reserves have played of late, more chances should be coming.
“They come in and change the game,” Wiggins said. “They’re big for this team.”