Johnson, Gelabale Enjoyed Unforgettable Wolves Debuts

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Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

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Playing all over Europe over the past five years, Mickael Gelabale thought about being able to make his way back to the NBA one day. But it wasn’t a given. He wasn’t sure he’d get another chance to play in the league after his last opportunity with Seattle ended in an ACL tear. Before Saturday night, he hadn’t appeared in an NBA game since 2008.

Chris Johnson got his shot in Timberwolves training camp this fall, getting acquainted with the organization, the coaches and the players before transitioning to the D-League.

Both signed their 10-day contracts on Saturday morning, and by Saturday night both admitted it took a little time to get comfortable joining this team on the fly. Gelabale said it was a stressful first half. Johnson said he relied on the guards getting him in the right position early on. But by the time the game was over, the duo were crucial in Minnesota’s 92-79 win over Houston—so much so that Johnson fielded “M-V-P” chants from the crowd during the fourth quarter.

“When my agent told me I had to come back to the NBA, that was a big surprise,” Gelabale said. “And the first half, I’m not going to lie I was a little bit stressed. But the second half I said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s do it. You’re here, enjoy it.’”

It’s hard to imagine a better start to their 10-day contracts with the Wolves. The two scored the first 23 Timberwolves points in the fourth quarter, sparking a team that had led by as many as 13 but held just a three-point advantage with 11:17 to play.

The game began to change as the two became more comfortable. They shot a combined 6-for-9 in the fourth, and from the line they hit 11-of-13 free throws. On the defensive end, Johnson’s athletic frame altered and contested shots and helped keep Houston in a shooting funk—the Rockets shot 32 percent from the field on the night and just 28.6 percent in the fourth quarter. Johnson finished with 15 points, while Gelabale added 11.

Anyone in the NBA will tell you getting a chance to play in the league is all about opportunity, and fortunately for Johnson and Gelabale they made the most of their first night back in unison. It’s not often two players that just inked 10-day contracts impact a game down the stretch quite so intensely, but these two did just that on Saturday night at Target Center.

Wolves guard J.J. Barea was on a Dallas Mavericks team that had 10-day contract signees like Sasha Pavlovic, who jumped right into the starting role due to injuries in 2010-11. He said preparation is the key to having success in those situations.

“You’ve got to give them a lot of credit,” Barea said. “They stayed ready. They were playing, and they did a great job of staying ready. That’s how you need, you need guys who have a 10-day contract and they take advantage. They get the opportunity—it’s a big opportunity for them, too, and they did a great job.”

Johnson said he got some star treatment after last night’s game, saying he received over 20 texts from friends and family congratulating him on his performance.

“Probably the most I ever had,” he said. Part of the reason he had that success was because he learned from his time in the league and during his training camp stint with the Wolves, kept working on adding strength and kept focused on the shot-blocking and running the floor that he could bring to the team if he got another call up. He said it’s not his first time in this position, so he was prepared to make the leap.

“I feel a little more aggressive as far as trying to finish around the rim more,” Johnson said. “But this is pretty much knowing the role and understanding the role. Being an energy guy and just trying to alter shots.”

Wolves coach Terry Porter said the two knew they were going to get some playing time and that they had made themselves prepared to step in. It’s not easy to step into that position, and he didn’t expect to necessarily play both of the new guys for the entire fourth quarter on Saturday, but they provided energy and an offensive punch that Minnesota needed at just the right time.

“The first thing you try to instill, to talk about, is just bringing effort and energy,” Porter said. “Scoring is something if it happens, it’s great. They had multiple opportunities, and they took care of them.”

They did just that, and according to veteran forward Andrei Kirilenko the two guys helped propel others on the team through their energy and their play. He said seeing Johnson and Gelabale playing with that energy, running the floor in the fourth, forced the veterans to take notice.

“They forced everybody thinking the new guys are running, I’ve got to run,” Kirilenko said, smiling. “They gave the example at the end of the game, and I think everybody picked it up.”

Johnson said he’s realistic about how special that first night at Target Center was, and he knows next game could be the exact opposite. The key is continuing to study, stay focused and bring the energy they brought on Saturday night.

If they do that, good things can happen.

“I Just have to stay even-keeled,” Johnson said. “I have to just say poised and be ready to make an impact at any time.”

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