You maybe could have called them “Bulls North” when president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau last summer acquired Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, both of whom he coached in Chicago.
Now you can just call them Timberwolves.
A three-time All Star before he arrived in a draft-night trade, Butler has become a game closer whose play has lifted his team from last in the NBA in net fourth-quarter rating through November games to second, behind only Houston, in December.
Gibson is the stick-’em that bonds with his rebounding, defensive possession and, yes, his scoring, which in Monday’s Christmas-night game denied the Lakers after they pulled within six points in the final five minutes.
Trailing by a point in the fourth quarter’s opening seconds, the Wolves went on a 16-1 run and led by 14 before the Lakers pushed back. When they pulled within 105-99 with 4:30 left, Gibson scored the next five points, on a short hook shot and, of all things, a three-point shot, that extended the lead to 11 points with 3:09 remaining.
Those five points essentially extended the Wolves’ winning streak to four and ended their Christmas trip to Denver, Phoenix and L.A. a perfect 3-0.
“He did last game, too,” Thibodeau said, referring to Saturday’s victory over the Suns. “He just has a knack of coming up with big plays when you need it most, whether it’s a defensive rebound, a blocked shot, a charge, a timely bucket. Most of the stuff he does is just his toughness, being in the right place, reading the ball. He’s relentless.
“That stuff goes a long way. What he has brought to the team and what Jimmy has brought to the team has changed everything for us.”
The Wolves turned away a Lakers team that played without starters Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Brook Lopez with a lopsided 38-24 fourth quarter in which they proved themselves resolute, just like they did late in the games at Phoenix and Denver.
Karl-Anthony Towns provided two three-point plays and Jamal Crawford made two three-point shots during that 16-1 run.
“We’re getting a lot more comfortable in that situation,” Crawford said about tight fourth quarters. “We have a lot of different options, guys who can make plays — Jimmy, Wigs, KAT, Jeff, Tyus, myself. There are a lot of guys and we have a lot of different options. I think that’s what makes this team dangerous. But it starts with defense. Whenever we get stops, we get a chance to get out and run and get easy baskets. That’s what really fuels that.”
Defense is the subject where Butler and Gibson have led with their experience, their intensity, their will.
When asked what he and Gibson have most brought to their new team, Butler said, “I think the way we show you have to play hard. We do have lapses, don’t get me wrong. But we’re building up to that point where everybody is learning that no matter, home or away, who we’re playing against, you’ve got to play hard.”
Gibson and Butler each led the Wolves in scoring Monday with 23 points. Towns delivered a 21-point, 10-rebound double-double and Crawford scored 19 points off the bench in 19 minutes. Forward Nemanja Bjelica returned after a 15-game injury absence and played nearly six minutes.
Gibson grabbed nine rebounds and had a steal, too. Butler’s night included eight assists, five rebounds and two steals.
Thibodeau insists the greatest value Butler and Gibson provided can’t be quantified by statistics.
“Just the toughness,” Thibodeau said. “You’re talking about two elite defenders and knowing how important defense is and making the right plays offensively. What gets overlooked is Jimmy has eight assists in this game, his rebounding. You can ask him to guard any player on the floor and he does it. They don’t take any possessions off and they understand how hard you have to play on every possession.
“With young guys, sometimes they don’t understand that. You can’t take plays off and you can’t pick and choose when you’re going to play defense. We’re still learning in those areas.”
The education is progressing, if four consecutive victories and seven in their past nine games are an accurate indicator.
“We’re doing a great job,” Towns said. “We had a stretch where we were winning one, winning two, losing one, winning again. We had to stop that. We told ourselves we want to get a winning streak and we’ve done exactly what we said, so I’m really happy.”