LOS ANGELES: The Minnesota Timberwolves recorded an emotional season-opening victory Wednesday by toppling Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers 112-111, just 72 hours after losing head coach Flip Saunders to cancer.
The two NBA league doormats from last year put on an exciting display as the Timberwolves rallied from a nine-point half-time deficit then forced Lakers guard Louis Williams to miss a potential game-winning shot at the buzzer.
Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio dedicated the thrilling win to Saunders, who died at aged 60 from Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Sunday after a 17-year career that also saw him coach the Washington Wizards and Detroit Pistons.
“It has been tough. He was everything for us and I think he really helped us today. Wherever he is, we are going to miss him,” said Rubio.
“We came here to fight because that is the way he taught us.”
Playing with heavy hearts, they honored Saunders by unveiling new pre-game warmup shirts with “We” on them, followed by a moment of silence. The ‘Wolves will also wear a “Flip” patch on their jerseys this season.
It ended up being a disappointing return to the court for Bryant, who played just 35 games last season after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in January.
The five-time NBA champion scored 24 points, but more importantly he set a record for most seasons played with the same franchise the moment he stepped onto the court at Staples Center arena to begin his 20th campaign with the Lakers.
Bryant, who surpassed former Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton’s mark of 19 consecutive seasons with the same club, managed just eight-of-24 shooting and missed 10-of-13 three-point attempts.
It was Bryant’s first game in a reduced role as the Lakers continue their roster overhaul by bringing in a young nucleus of players, including 19-year-old D’Angelo Russell, who was the second overall pick in the June draft.
Russell finished with four points in 26 minutes of playing time.
Rubio scored 28 points and delivered 14 assists, and Kevin Martin came off the bench to score 23 for the Timberwolves, who like the Lakers missed the playoffs last season.
Elsewhere on the second day of the 2015-16 season, Chris Bosh, who was hospitalized last season due to blood clots in his lungs, made a triumphant return with a game-high 21 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Miami Heat to a 104-94 win over the Charlotte Hornets.
Russell Westbrook scored 33 points to lead Oklahoma City to a 112-106 win over the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Kevin Durant, who missed most of last season with a broken right foot, scored 22 points in his first regular-season game in eight months.
In Memphis, Kevin Love had 17 points and 13 rebounds and Richard Jefferson added 14 points to power the defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers to a 106-76 victory over the Grizzlies.