Late in the fourth quarter of Wednesday night’s 107-100 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns pinned a shot from Anthony Davis against the backboard and then mugged at the crowd, reveling in his momentary dominance over another esteemed big man from Kentucky.

Moments later, Andrew Wiggins went flying through the air, and it was all Pelicans forward Nikola Mirotic could do to get out of the way before Wiggins plowed him over.

Wiggins stuffed it through the hoop, and the Target Center crowd, which has lacked for causes of celebration, erupted in one of its loudest ovations all season.

 

Jimmy Butler wasn’t in the building Wednesday as the Wolves played their first game with his replacements from the 76ers in the lineup — and the Wolves looked like a different team that was better for his absence.

Whereas Towns and Wiggins disappeared in the fourth quarter of a recent 0-5 road trip, Wednesday they made key plays on both ends of the floor. And a Wolves squad that seemed to have an anvil on their backs in the first month looked unburdened.

It was only one game, and perhaps the adrenaline was coursing through the Wolves’ veins, but it was an auspicious beginning for Robert Covington and Dario Saric.

Hallelujah.

“This team has a lot of talent,” Covington said. “This team can be very great. We played together. We had a great all-around game. Guys came in and there was really no dropoff. … We got to see new blood out there, and I think the city is going to be very happy with us.”

They were certainly in a good mood Wednesday. Covington had 13 points and Saric nine as they tried to fit in during their Wolves debut.

But perhaps the most encouraging sign of the night was that Towns and Wiggins were assertive in the final minutes of a close game the Wolves almost let slip away. They made sure it didn’t in that sequence of plays that gave the Wolves a six-point lead with 1:50 to play.

“When you see great effort plays, which both of those were, they do nothing but unite and inspire the team,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Everyone can see it. You feel it. I think that emotion is great, and those are tough plays.”

That’s going to have to be the norm for the Wolves without Butler, who usually dominated possessions late in games. Wiggins said he feels more responsibility to step up in those situations, but added: “I feel like the whole team, whoever is on the floor has to step it up. When Jimmy was here, Jimmy is a good closer and that’s proven, and it’s up to us to close out games.”

The Wolves had opened it up in the first half, storming ahead by 21 in the second quarter before the Pelicans clamped down on defense and chipped away to take a two-point lead with 4:40 to play.

But the negative energy that seemed to bog down games late in the fourth quarter when Butler was here this season — something owner Glen Taylor said he noticed — was not present, and the Wolves seized on the energy of the crowd.

Towns finished with 25 points and 16 rebounds, Wiggins had 23 points and three steals. Point guard Jeff Teague added 14 points and 14 assists.

The Wolves had opened it up in the first half, storming ahead by 21 in the second quarter before the Pelicans clamped down on defense and chipped away to take a two-point lead with 4:40 to play.

But the negative energy that seemed to bog down games late in the fourth quarter when Butler was here this season — something owner Glen Taylor said he noticed — was not present, and the Wolves seized on the energy of the crowd.

Every night won’t be like Wednesday, but after two months filled with angst and uncertainty over Butler’s trade request, it felt like a victory was the least that could happen.

“It’s about having fun and playing with love and enthusiasm,” Towns said.

That seemed much harder to do just a few days ago.