PHOENIX – Usually a man of the same words, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau chose just two to explain how his team prevailed against yet another Suns comeback in Saturday’s 115-106 victory.
“Jimmy Butler,” he said.
Simple enough. Butler scored 20 of his 32 points in the second half, including 12 and another pair of important free throws in the fourth quarter. He made 12 of 13 free throws and 10 of 19 shots from the field.
“Jimmy Butler was not going to let us lose that game,” Thibodeau said. “You can’t say enough about what he does for his team. He has changed everything for us.”
With Butler, a Wolves team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004 and hasn’t finished with a winning record since 2005 now is 20-13 and fourth in the Western Conference by two games even after having lost twice to the Suns already this season.
The Suns had won their previous three games by overcoming double-digit deficits, including a 15-point comeback against the Wolves at Target Center the week before.
This time, the Wolves built a 23-point, second-quarter lead, then surrendered to the Suns a 20-4 third-quarter run before they persevered in the fourth quarter to win.
They did so after Phoenix twice pulled within two points late in the third quarter but never could get even. They did so when the Suns three times rallied within five points in the game’s final two minutes.
Taj Gibson’s putback layup after Butler missed a short shot pushed back the first time. Andrew Wiggins’ pullup shot from the lane did it the second time. And then Butler created a play, drew a foul and made two free throws to give his team a 113-106 lead with 32.7 seconds left. The Suns never seriously challenged again.
“He’s great at drawing fouls, every time,” Thibodeau said. “He gets to the line, makes clutch shots, clutch plays, hustle plays, chases plays down from behind, guards every position on the floor, never takes a possession off, understands how important defense is. You can’t say enough about what he has done for us.”
Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns’ 16-point, 14-rebound double-double and Gorgui Dieng’s two made three-pointers, three assists and two blocked shots helped the Wolves win their third consecutive game, their fourth in the past five games and sixth in their past eight.
Afterward, Butler was told his coach credited him for simply refusing to let his team lose.
“I don’t like to lose,” Butler said. “I feel like I’m in a rhythm right now. I feel like whenever we guard as a team, we share the ball, but whenever I need to shoot, I have to. I have to be prepared to play and to make plays for everybody, including myself.
“I feel good. I love to win.”
Playing their ninth consecutive game without injured star Devin Booker, the Suns missed their first eight shots Saturday and 21 of their first 28. They went 14-for-43 by halftime before they reversed course and shot 60.5 percent in the second half. Former Wolves guard Troy Daniels made six of the Suns’ 11 three-point baskets.
When asked what his team did in the first half that it didn’t do in the second half, Butler said: “Guard somebody. We got comfortable with our little lead, and they did what they do best: play hard, make shots. We just played lazy on both ends of the floor.”
Afterward, Thibodeau praised his team for finding “some toughness and resolve to find a way to win the game” and praised Butler most of all.
“I think Jimmy’s experience to get through situations like that, he’s really mentally tough,” Thibodeau said. “Whenever you face adversity, he always finds a way to get through it. He makes tough play after tough play.”
Patton called up
The Wolves on Sunday recalled rookie center Justin Patton from their G League team in Iowa, in time for Monday’s Christmas night game in Los Angeles. Two-way contract player Anthony Brown also is expected to be called up because the Iowa team doesn’t play again until Friday. Both are expected to rejoin the Iowa Wolves by then.