LOS ANGELES – Before the Timberwolves learn Tuesday evening if the Western Conference coaches have chosen both Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns for next month’s All-Star Game, coach Tom Thibodeau made a reasoned if fruitless plea for young star Andrew Wiggins, too.
Then the 22-year-old whom teammate Jimmy Butler calls the team’s most-talented player went out and made a case of his own in Monday’s frantic 126-118 victory over the Clippers in Los Angeles.
Wiggins’ 40-point performance was his fifth 30-point game at Staples Center and it powered the Wolves to their 31st victory this season, as many as they won all last season.
And there’s still 33 games remaining.
“It’s amazing, how we play now,” Wolves third-year forward Nemanja Bjelica said. “We have a great opportunity this year.”
Bjelica started Monday for the second consecutive game after both Butler (sore knee) and veteran guard Jamal Crawford (sprained big toe) went out injured, played nearly 35 important minutes and made three of his team’s seven three-pointers.
The Wolves lost lopsided consecutive games to Detroit and Indiana without Butler in November, but now have grinded out victories over Toronto and a Clippers team that had won 11 of its last 15 games.
They did it Monday by allowing their opponent 56-percent shooting, 72 points in the paint and still they won, holding on in the final minute when both Clippers coach Doc Rivers and assistant Mike Woodson were ejected after all had unraveled for their team.
“We found a way to win,” Thibodeau said.
They did it by outrebounding L.A. 18-8 on the offensive backboards and outscoring them 33-15 at the free-throw line. Starting point guard Jeff Teague made 16 of 17 there all himself.
They did it when Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns countered a 1-for-7 shooting with 17 rebounds (including six offensive ones), 9-for-10 free throw shooting and a blocked shot.
And, of course, they did it after Wiggins topped one season scoring high -- Saturday’s 29-point game against the Raptors – with another two nights later. His 40-point game came seven points short of a career high reached against the Lakers at Target Center in November 2016.
“It was amazing,” teammate Karl-Anthony Towns said. “I don’t know if I put the voodoo on him, but I told him he was going to get 40 tonight. He made me look good. I’m happy for him. He was playing spirited basketball and played at a high level all night. It just seemed like we were in Staples Center watching young Kobe play out there.”
Wiggins now has scored 41, 36 and 30 points in games against the Lakers at Staples Center and 40 and 31 against the Clippers there as well.
“Have I?” Wiggins asked. “I stopped counting. Hopefully, I can keep it going.”
Before Monday’s game, Thibodeau made the case for Wiggins to get some All-Star consideration, too, if you’re willing to look beyond points and percentages to the NBA standings instead.
“Sometimes players get measured statistically,” Thibodeau said. “When you look at guys who impact winning, the impact has been great. And that’s the most important stat there is.”
Not only did the Wolves match their victory total from last season already, but Monday’s victory moved them back into the Western Conference’s third place, a half-game ahead of San Antonio. They now are 24-7 this season against Western teams.
They did it after Wiggins’ 40 points trumped Clippers star Blake Griffin’s 32-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist double-double and after Teague’s 30 points on those 16 made free throws outdid L.A. sixth man Lou Williams’ 20 points after he had averaged 31 points in his previous 11 games.
The Wolves have had one player score at least 40 points and another score at least 30 points in the same game three times in their history, and all three have come at Staples Center: Wiggins’ 40 and Teague’s 30 on Monday, Wiggins’ 41 and Towns’ 40 in a one-point against the Lakers last April and Kevin Love’s 45 and Nikola Pekovic’s 34 in an overtime loss to the Clippers in Dec. 2013.
Teague’s 17 free-throw attempts were by four a career high.
“Jeff was terrific,” Thibodeau said. “He said the tone right from the beginning of the game and Wig was phenomenal from start to finish.”
Regarding Wiggins’ night, Teague said, “We all know he is a talent. We all know he can have nights like he has been having lately. With the ball in his hands, we are just letting him play and he is playing great right now.”
The Wolves outscored the Clippers 15-7 over the game’s final four minutes, turning a score tied at 111 into a winning margin that looks bigger than it should have. The Wolves survived Towns’ inexplicable turnover off an in-bounds play under his own basket with 27 seconds left when Griffin committed a double-dribble violation in the open court when the Clippers had the ball and a chance to tie the game with a three-pointer with 14 seconds left.
“Things happen, I’m not worried about that,” Towns said. “That’s what a young kid does. A young kid gets flustered in the moment. That wasn’t happening. Stay focused regardless what happens, what mistakes you make. It doesn’t matter, you’ve got to do whatever it takes to win.”
From there, the Wolves scored the game’s final five points, all on free throws after first Rivers and then Woodson got himself ejected. The Clippers were whistled for four technical fouls – the first by Griffin, the second by Clippers assistant Sam Cassell -- in the final five minutes.
The Clippers played without injured DeAndre Jordan, Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari, Austin Rivers and Jawun Evans while the Wolves played on without, of course, Butler and Crawford.
“We’ve got enough firepower in this locker room to win,” Towns said. “Jimmy is a huge part of our team. Jamal as well. Anytime they don’t play, we can’t feel like we’re going out there to lose. We have enough talent. Next Man Up is something we feel very confident about.”