SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – Now 2-0 since their star and defensive conscience went down clutching his knee, the Timberwolves beat Sacramento 118-100 Monday with a defensive third quarter that came with Jimmy Butler 1,800 miles away.
Leading just 63-60 at halftime, the Wolves used a lopsided 34-17 third quarter that changed everything at Golden 1 Center and was all about motivation and determination rather than halftime adjustments.
“Great offense but no defense, that’s a formula to fail,” All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We just had to change it up.”
It’s a message Butler has preached all season and one by which the Wolves abided vs. a Kings team that has lost four consecutive games and nine of 11 on its way to another draft lottery.
After surrendering 29 points in the first quarter and 31 in the second, the Wolves held the Kings to 27 percent shooting in the third quarter. They also outscored Sacramento 25-4 off turnovers and 33-12 at the free-throw line.
The Wolves now have beaten both Chicago and Sacramento by 18 points each since Butler suffered a partly torn meniscus Friday in Houston.
Monday, they won after six players — including all five starters — scored in double figures, led by Towns’ 26-point, 17-rebound double-double delivered against former Kentucky teammate Willie Cauley-Stein part of the night.
“We’re going to ride the wave,” Wolves veteran forward Taj Gibson said. “We understand we have a tough road ahead of us.”
That road toughens with games against Portland on Thursday and Utah on Friday before a five-game stretch beyond that with games against Boston, Golden State, Washington, San Antonio and Houston.
“We’re in a good spot right now,” Wolves young star Andrew Wiggins said. “Just keep it going and finish strong.”
Switched to Butler’s big-guard spot now that Nemanja Bjelica is starting at small forward, Wiggins followed Saturday’s 23-point game with 22 points Monday during a game when point guard Jeff Teague again supplied the Wolves a quicker pace and Bjelica delivered size, defense and seven rebounds — not to mention a couple three-pointers from his spot.
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau called Teague’s performance “terrific” and consistent with recent outings now that he’s fully recovered from a December leg injury. “So aggressive, whatever the game needs,” Thibodeau said. “He was in the paint all night, made a lot of good plays and a lot of good reads. The big thing is run the team efficiently, and he’s doing that.”
Thibodeau also called Bjelica’s play vital to Monday’s victory. “That stuff, it’s not unimportant to winning,” he said. “To get seven rebounds out of that position and having that length is a big plus for us. Just the threat of his shot opens up the floor and he also moves really well without the ball. If you turn your head, Belly is going to cut. He gets us moving.”
Towns’ 26-17 game was his league-leading 54th double-double game and it came on a night when he was active from the start against his former college teammate and others.
“That’s all love,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s little bro. I’m learning when I play against him. It’s fun every time.”