SALT LAKE CITY – Relegated to the bench or specific situational matchups until very recently, Timberwolves second-year guard Tyus Jones has found a steady place in coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation, much to the approval of a faithful hometown audience.
That place is primarily beside rookie Kris Dunn in a backcourt that now features two point guards when starter Ricky Rubio comes to the bench for a breather.
Thibodeau has paired Jones and Dunn together often in the last week, providing Jones consistent playing time the past four games for the first time this season.
Injuries to guards Zach LaVine and Lance Stephenson have created lineup space, and Jones’ previous performances when he did play have rewarded him with more playing time, in a pairing with Dunn that quickens the pace when Thibodeau calls upon his bench players.
“With Zach going down and Lance going down as well, it has been more regular,” Jones said. “So I’m just preparing myself to go out there and be ready to play and play well.”
Even though Thibodeau says he’ll still play Jones mostly when the opposition plays two point guards or three guards together, Jones has played 25, 21, 27 and 17 minutes against a variety of lineups in those past four games for a second unit that has pleased Thibodeau with its recent play.
The Wolves have won three of those four games, as well as five of seven and six of nine while Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns continue to score 20 points a game or more each without a hiccup. They have stayed within three games of Denver in pursuit of the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
“I like Tyus and Kris together; that’s a big plus,” Thibodeau said. “They have good chemistry together. It gives you a second pick-and-roll player. That unit plays off each other well. You can push the ball with either guy, and the other guy can run long. It opens up the floor. It sets up dribble penetration. It sets up the drive-and-kick game.
“I like the way the tempo of the game has gone with those two guys in.”
Dunn is the strong, determined one-on-one defender and Jones the defensive opportunist, even if neither has great height.
“We’re just out there hounding guys, trying to hassle people,” Dunn said.
Together the two young players along with power forward Nemanja Bjelica have helped the Wolves limit opponents to fewer than 90 points in four of the past seven games.
The most recent: Wednesday’s 107-80 victory at Utah in which the Wolves held the Jazz to 35 first-half points and the final 80 points that tied an opponent’s season low.
“Kris is a tremendous defender, likes to pressure the ball,” said Jones, Apple Valley-raised and the 2015 NCAA Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player while at Duke. “I use my hands and my IQ, and I try to use my anticipation as one of my strengths. We play well together.”
Forget Houston’s 142 points scored last Saturday, and the Wolves have noticeably ratcheted their defensive urgency since the All-Star break two weeks ago.
What has changed for a team repeatedly told by its coach that it will win as soon as its defensive purpose matches its offense?
“Just the intensity and discipline,” Dunn said. “We’ve just started to click on the defensive end.”
Offensively, they play with a pulse and Jones with efficiency. He has 30 assists and three turnovers in his past nine games.
“We fit,” Jones said. “It’s a change of speed, two point guards out there trying to push the tempo. We’ve got two point guards who can create for each other and for the other guys, too. We’re trying to make it work. So far, it has been good. We feed off each other.”