Karl-Anthony Towns was in casual wear on the sidelines Sunday night, watching as the Timberwolves fell behind by nine to the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth quarter.
It had the flavor of some of the six other losses the Wolves have had without Towns, who was taking a planned rest for his dislocated left wrist a night after making his return.
The Wolves were down nine with just under nine minutes left and it seemed like the Spurs would win without much fuss.
But a Wolves team that coach Ryan Saunders said was "fed up" with seven straight losses finally was angry enough to put one in the win column with a 96-88 victory over the Spurs — and they finally raised their winning percentage from zero in games played without Towns.
"These guys are showing what they can do when we're committed to [defense], because that's what this group needs," Saunders said. "The fact that we did this without Karl tonight does make a difference. It helps with confidence."
In a twist, the team with the worst defensive efficiency in the NBA used a solid effort on that end of the floor to overcome a choppy offensive night outside of D'Angelo Russell (27 points, five rebounds, five assists) and Malik Beasley (24 points). It wasn't the prettiest of victories, given San Antonio shot 38% to the Wolves' 42%, but the Wolves were in no position to critique the cosmetics of a win.
"It was good to get one," Russell said. "But we try to keep a 'So what, what's next' mentality. We beat a team, now let's prepare for the next one and have that same mentality and detail going into the next game."
Russell keyed the comeback with 10 fourth-quarter points while scoring six points in a 12-2 Wolves run that gave them an 81-79 lead with 5 minutes, 14 seconds remaining. The Wolves held the Spurs to nine points the rest of the way.
It came as no coincidence that the Wolves had one of their best defensive nights in Josh Okogie's first night back after missing six games because of a strained left hamstring.
"Defensively, that's just how I've made my mark so far," Okogie said. "Defensively, the last few games, we've been missing that spark, so I tried to come in here and just focus my energy on defense."
Added Beasley of Okogie: "He's the X-factor for sure."
Saunders said Okogie's attitude about defense is something the team sorely needs.
"He's one of the guys that cares about defense at his core," Saunders said. "We need to get to that as a group."
They didn't seem near that without him, as they allowed 126.8 points while Okogie was out. It helped that the Spurs were missing DeMar DeRozan on Sunday. Combine that with the Wolves missing Towns and it made for a lot of clangs off the rims. Lonnie Walker IV led San Antonio with 25 points, 22 of those coming in the first half.
The last two weeks were a harrowing stretch for the Wolves early in the season. There were lopsided losses, porous defense and a team struggling to find its North Star without Towns in the lineup. They looked better with Towns back Saturday, and finally won Sunday for the first time in more than two weeks.
"We could use that one-handed guy every night," Russell joked of Towns playing with a brace Saturday.
There will be more nights ahead with Towns playing while limited. But Sunday showed even without him a win was still possible, despite all other evidence to the contrary.
• The Star Tribune reporter did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews after the game.