NEW YORK (AP) — Tom Thibodeau's first game against his former team turned out to be the last one for Ryan Saunders.
Julius Randle had 25 points and 14 rebounds, and the New York Knicks recovered after blowing a 21-point lead to pull out a 103-99 victory Sunday night over the Minnesota Timberwolves, who fired Saunders afterward.
Thibodeau got the Timberwolves to a rare postseason spot — with Saunders one of his assistants — and might do the same this season in New York, where the Knicks are 15-16 and entered play in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. They have won four of their last five games.
Randle made the go-ahead free throw with 32 seconds left and the Knicks held on in a game that seemed fully in their control when they led 86-65 late in the third quarter.
But Karl-Anthony Towns had a big fourth, finishing with 27 points and 15 rebounds. Minnesota outscored New York 28-16 in the final period.
“They made up ground quickly on us but I do like the fact that we kept fighting and we found a way to win the game and ultimately that’s what’s important, is finding a way to win,” Thibodeau said.
RJ Barrett added 21 points for the Knicks in their last game played with no fans at Madison Square Garden. The arena is set to be filled to 10% capacity, about 2,000 fans, Tuesday night when the Knicks host the Golden State Warriors.
Ricky Rubio scored 18 points for Minnesota. The Timberwolves have lost four straight and eight of nine.
“We've got to do better as players to find ways to win,” Towns said.
They'll have to do it without Saunders, who was dismissed after the game with a 43-94 record after replacing the fired Thibodeau on Jan. 6, 2019.
The Knicks hadn’t played since Wednesday, after their first postponement of the season Saturday because of coronavirus cases on the San Antonio Spurs.
They looked good after the layoff, taking a 61-50 lead at halftime. The lead hit 21 when Randle made two free throws with 1:48 remaining in the third.
Minnesota came all the way back to take a 96-95 lead on Towns’ basket with 2:45 remaining. They were still ahead until Towns fouled Randle on a drive, and after his two free throws, Towns missed a baseline jumper. Alec Burks made four free throws to close it out.
“Unfortunately we ran out of time,” Saunders said. “I did like the two looks we got late in the game, but you dig yourselves holes you've got to do everything right when you’re down 21 to come out of here with a victory.”
Thibodeau’s 2 1/2 seasons with the Wolves included their lone playoff berth in the last 16 seasons when they went 47-35 in 2017-18. But the following season got off to a tumultuous start when Jimmy Butler wanted out and Thibodeau was fired around midseason.
Taj Gibson, who played for Thibodeau in Minnesota, said his coach didn't put any extra emphasis on the game.
“Just focus on each other and not worrying about anybody or any other team,” Gibson said. “Just focusing on ourselves and getting better and understanding we’re building something and that’s it.”
Timberwolves: Minnesota had won the last four meetings. The teams did not play in 2019-20, last meeting March 10, 2019, not long after Saunders replaced Thibodeau.
Knicks: Austin Rivers (illness) didn't play. He has been out of the rotation since the Knicks traded for Derrick Rose. ... Thibodeau said he wasn't considering for now sending G Frank Ntilikina to the NBA G League to get some work. Ntilikina has played in just four games this season, missing time for injuries and health and safety protocols and not cracking the rotation when healthy. Thibodeau said he likes having the former lottery pick around the team, adding “even though he’s not playing, he’s adding a lot to our team right now.”
Rose (20 points) and Gibson were the Wolves’ top scorers the last time they played at MSG, in a victory on Feb. 22, 2019. Saunders praised Rose for helping teammates who were far less accomplished. “His willingness and ability to impart any knowledge and any wisdom on young players, I’ll go on to say that I’ve been around a lot of really good veterans, but he’s probably the best I’ve ever seen," Saunders said, "and right with him would be Taj Gibson, too.”
Timberwolves: Visit Milwaukee on Tuesday night.
Knicks: Host Golden State on Tuesday night.