Sid Hartman
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The Timberwolves have posted a 6-7 record since Ryan Saunders became interim head coach, replacing Tom Thibodeau on Jan. 6.

Their 108-106 loss to the Grizzlies on Tuesday followed a familiar pattern — five of those seven losses under Saunders have come by four points or fewer. But a big reason for their losses in that stretch has been an unbelievable amount of injuries.

The Wolves have been playing most of that time without starters Jeff Teague and Robert Covington and reserves Tyus Jones and Derrick Rose.

Looking at those four players’ contributions before their injuries, it’s amazing the Wolves are staying above water while they’re out.

Rose was the second-leading scorer for the Wolves at 18.3 points per game and second in assists at 4.7 per game.

Teague led the team in assists (8.1) and was fourth in minutes (30.3).

Covington’s 34.7 minutes equaled Andrew Wiggins for the team lead, his 14.5 points were the fourth highest and his 2.3 steals per game was the highest mark in the league.

Jones was playing 20.3 minutes per game but was a key backup, and his 4.0 assists per game were the third-highest mark on the team. His 6.3 assists-to-turnovers ratio remains the highest mark in the NBA.

Permanent coach?

Still, even while dealing with those injuries, there is no doubt Saunders is showing he should be given the permanent head coaching job.

The biggest difference under Saunders, the youngest coach in the NBA at 32, is that he has turned around the energy at Target Center in a hurry. Does he have confidence he could do this job for the long run?

“I do have confidence,” Saunders said. “The players make it easier on me, but I have prepared for this for a long time. I didn’t think I would get it at this age or in the middle of the season, but I feel confident and positive about how things have gone so far.

“Like anybody, people have things they want to improve upon, as every professional should, so I’m really looking forward to getting that opportunity.”

He still utilizes many things learned from his father, former Wolves coach Flip Saunders, but has enjoyed setting up his own playing style and system.

“I use a good amount of my father’s plays, but I have a good amount of my own plays. It’s not all just stuff he ran,” Ryan said. “I do a lot of different things. But I think one of the biggest things I do take from him is how he deals with people and how he deals with players and communicates. I think that’s important and he always did a great job of that.”

Need players back

The injuries have made a big impact on Saunders’ early tenure.

Covington, who was a big difference-maker after being traded here in the Jimmy Butler deal, has missed all 13 games under Saunders because of a right knee bone bruise and will not be with the team for the remainder of their road trip to Orlando on Thursday and New Orleans on Friday.

Jones (left ankle) has missed the past nine games after playing in the first four games under Saunders and isn’t expected to play on the road trip.

Rose (right ankle) missed five games after Thibodeau’s firing, and three in a row before he returned to play 20 minutes against Denver on Saturday, but he did not make the road trip after injuring his back.

And Teague (left foot) has missed the past seven games after playing in the first six and is doubtful for Thursday night.

“So far, you know, we’ve faced challenges. We faced adversity as a team but the players have been great,” Saunders said. “We feel good about going forward.”

Will any of the injured players return soon?

“We hope to get some guys back before this All-Star break [Feb. 15-17], but you never know how guys’ bodies respond,” Saunders said. “Each day these guys are doing more and more, but it would be nice to get a couple more guys back in.”

Veterans pitch in

Maybe the best surprise for Saunders has been how well players such as Jerryd Bayless and Luol Deng have stepped in for their injured teammates.

Bayless appeared in six games all season before Saunders took over. Since then he has played in 10 consecutive contests and started five in a row. In those five starts, he has averaged 13.8 points, 8.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game while committing only 2.0 turnovers in 38.5 minutes per game.

Deng, meanwhile, has appeared in 10 of the past 11 games. In the past four, he has averaged 21.8 minutes per game while scoring 12.5 points with 4.5 rebounds.

“I mean, Luol Deng and Jerryd Bayless have been unbelievable for us in the face of adversity and injuries,” Saunders said. “Jerryd is a professional, Luol is a professional, and the way they have stepped up has been huge.”

The Wolves will need their injured players back soon if they want to make a playoff push. They remain four games behind the Clippers, who traded star player Tobias Harris on Wednesday, for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Smith, Brooks healthy

The Gophers football team finished eighth in the Big Ten in rushing yards last season despite losing their top two running backs, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, to knee injuries.

Smith rushed for 2,805 yards from 2015-2017; Brooks ran for 1,728 in that stretch.

Coach P.J. Fleck said this week that Smith and Brooks, both redshirt seniors, have been granted an extra year of eligibility and look as if they’ll be ready for the start of spring practice.

“They’re both coming back, both got the year. They’re doing a great job working,” Fleck said. “You look at them right now and you think they’re ready to go just based on how they work and how they look and watching them run and lift. They’re still months away from being ready to be involved in true football activity, but they’re working really hard.”

In addition to Smith and Brooks, redshirt sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim and sophomore Bryce Williams combined for 1,696 yards rushing last season and are going to challenge for carries.

“I think that whole competition has made everybody better,” Fleck said. “It has just completely uplifted the running back room. I’m really proud of Rodney and Shannon and what they’re becoming and the type of men they’re becoming as well, and what they’ve learned from their past to create their future. They’re getting better every day.”

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com