For the second game in a row, the Timberwolves slammed the door.
In a season that hasn’t included a whole lot of victories, with a young team that at times looked like it had a whole lot yet to learn, tangible proof of improvement is now being offered.
Which is why the announced 17,876 fans at Target Center left knowing the home team finally is on a winning streak.
Big men Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng dominated from start to finish and Andrew Wiggins lit the torch late. The Wolves scored the final 12 points in a 112-105 victory over Chicago that gave them their 16th victory, matching their total for the entire 2014-15 season.
“We’ve been working hard this whole year,” said Wiggins, who scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, including six in a row in the final minute as the Wolves, down 105-100 with less than three minutes remaining, closed with a flourish for their second consecutive victory. “It’s finally coming together for us. Our chemistry is there. We know where everyone is at. We all know our spots on the team. We’re getting better every game. We’re better than our record shows.”
With a game that echoed their 102-93 overtime victory in Chicago on Nov. 7, the Wolves swept the two-game season series over the Bulls for the first time since 2008-09. In that first meeting, the Wolves held the Bulls scoreless in OT. Saturday, the Bulls — playing without injured All-Star Jimmy Butler, who suffered a left knee strain Friday in Denver — didn’t score again after Derrick Rose hit two free throws with 2:55 left.
“It’s been a big problem for us, closing the games out,” Towns said. “But we did it against the Clippers [Wednesday] and we did a great job tonight.”
He was part of a big man beatdown with Dieng: Towns had 26 points and 17 rebounds, and Dieng had 24 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. Together, they shot 22-for-32, had 22 offensive rebounds and four blocks. Both played more than 40 minutes as interim coach Sam Mitchell just couldn’t bring himself to take them out.
“Every day, everyone is seeing us get better as a team,” Towns said. “Today was just another step for us.”
Five Wolves players scored in double figures. The Wolves had three players with 20 or more points for the fifth game this season; all five have come in the past month. The Wolves shot better than 50 percent for the third consecutive game, the first time that’s happened since March 2013.
“I look at these guys, and it’s about them getting better,” Mitchell said.
It was more than a month ago that Mitchell said that he started seeing a difference in his team. A change in body language, how they practiced and prepared. Perhaps now some dividends are being paid.
But it looked like another lost opportunity for a while. In a game in which neither team had led by more than six through three quarters, Chicago broke open a tie game midway through the fourth, with Rose (18 points, 10 assists) and Pau Gasol (25 points) leading the way.
But after that 105-100 lead, the Bulls didn’t score again. Out of a timeout, at assistant coach Sidney Lowe’s suggestion, the Wolves changed their defense, putting Wiggins on Rose and adjusting a few other things.
The result: Chicago went 0-for-7 the rest of the game.
Zach LaVine hit two free throws with 2:34 left. After Rose missed, Rubio hit two more and it was a one-point game.
Then it was Wiggins’ turn: On three possessions he hit a 9-foot jumper, a twisting layup and a 17-footer with 19.5 seconds left that iced the game.
“We played smart again,” Rubio said. “We made good decisions, and Wigs made big shots at the end. That’s the way we want to play.”