WASHINGTON – You can call Timberwolves forward Nemanja Bjelica by any number of nicknames befitting a fella whose surname has a consonant that doesn’t belong.
Whatever you do, just call him and his teammates a winner after Tuesday’s 116-111 comeback victory at Washington.
Whether you call him “Belly” as teammates do or “Professor Big Shots” as they did once upon a time in Europe, Bjelica and fellow starter Andrew Wiggins could barely make a shot through the first three quarters.
“I was terrible,” Bjelica said after he made two of his first 11 shots but already had reached a career-high seven assists.
And then they couldn’t miss in the fourth quarter. Bjelica went 5-for-5, Wiggins 3-for-3 and Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns made two winning plays in the final 30 seconds uncommon from a man his size.
Trailing 95-85 with less than 10 minutes remaining, the Wolves changed the game with a 20-3 burst in which Bjelica made two of his three three-pointers and Wiggins attacked the rim for a driving layup and a cutting dunk.
By the time the Wolves outscored the Wizards 34-21 in the fourth, they shot 72.2 percent (13-for-18) for the quarter and held Washington to 35 percent (7-for-20).
The victory kept the Wolves sixth in the Western Conference, making it two in a row after ending their season-longest losing streak (three games) with Sunday’s win over Golden State at Target Center. Minnesota leads the Clippers, Jazz and Spurs by 1 1/2 games.
“Every game is big,” Wolves guard Jamal Crawford after playing most of the fourth quarter with Bjelica, Towns, Wiggins and Tyus Jones. “It doesn’t make sense to win a game like Sunday and then come in here and lose.”
So the Wolves rallied in the fourth and won after Towns’ three-pointer from the left corner after pump-faking gave the Wolves a 114-109 lead with 29 seconds left. After the Wizards made it a one-possession game, Towns’ nimble defense forced star guard Bradley Beal into a bad pass that Jeff Teague turned into a steal and two-handed dunk for final punctuation.
Before the game, Towns told coach Tom Thibodeau that he missed a three-pointer the last time these two teams played in November because he hesitated, pump-faked a shot and missed.
“I wasn’t missing twice,” said Towns, who didn’t finish the first half’s final minutes after he got hit hard in the head.
This time, Towns didn’t miss. He made it, just like Bjelica and Wiggins did all fourth quarter.
“Never give up,” Wiggins said. “That’s the way the game goes. Keep going and going and hopefully it falls for you.”
Bjelica made enough fourth-quarter shots that he was reminded afterward of the Professor Big Shots nickname Turkish fans gave him when he made a winning shot in a Eurobasket competition.
“I don’t like that nickname,” Bjelica said. “I mean, I like Belly more.”
Towns invented another nickname — “He’s the Serbian LeBron; we’ve got a lot of nicknames around here for him” — on the spot while Thibodeau praised Bjelica’s playmaking and “great poise” all game long.
Unlike Bjelica’s 2-for-11 start, Wiggins made four of his first 11 shots before both players couldn’t miss in the game’s final minutes.
Through it all, they just kept shooting, particularly Bjelica.
“That’s when you have to throw out analytics, man,” Crawford said. “If Belly was thinking about that, he would have stopped shooting. But he kept going, kept firing. He was huge.”
Reminded that a 2-for-11 shooting start just would have been called a stat back in the day, Crawford said, “Oh, OK, there’s a new creative word now. You better get with the times.”