DENVER – Just when their season’s momentum teetered, the Timberwolves won consecutive games and maybe delivered a message as well with late-game stands that featured reserve veteran guard Jamal Crawford alongside Jimmy Butler while young star Andrew Wiggins watched much of both fourth quarters.
The Wolves used a 32-22 fourth quarter to beat Portland by a point at home on Monday. They won Wednesday at Denver with a 32-20 fourth that ended the Nuggets’ eight-game home winning streak.
Butler proved to be the closer in both games, but Crawford provided shooting, scoring, playmaking and something else unexpected when it mattered most.
“When somebody has it rolling like Jamal on the offensive end, you’ve got to let him roll,” Butler said. “But more often than not, man, he was guarding, too. When we’re out there guarding, you’ve got to go with defense at the end of games.
“If you want to play, start guarding.”
In the two games after he told reporters he didn’t sign with the Wolves to play only 17 minutes a night, Crawford played an expanded role in both, particularly when he played nearly all of both fourth quarters. He scored 16 of his 23 points in Monday’s fourth quarter and then scored eight of his 20 points and had three of his seven assists in Wednesday’s fourth. He played 28 minutes, the most he has played since the season’s fourth game.
“When Jamal is hitting shots like that, we’re almost impossible to guard,” Wolves young star Karl-Anthony Towns said. “He’s a walking bucket. When the well is open, it’s absolutely amazing to watch him drop point after point.”
Stuck in a December shooting slump, Wiggins played at game’s end both nights, finishing the final 3 ½ minutes against Portland and the final 89 seconds against Denver. He delivered a clutch block/steal with 66 seconds left Monday and pulled down an important rebound with a minute left Wednesday — on a night when he had five rebounds, two assists, two steals and a blocked shot.
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau urges his players to do other things — rebound, defend, run the floor, take a charge — when their shot isn’t falling. Wiggins had six rebounds against Portland.
“Oftentimes that’s what gets you going,” Thibodeau said. “If you rebound the ball, you can bust out with it. A great example of that is Jimmy. Oftentimes he gets going with his defense, his rebounding, busting out with it. Get a steal, get into the open floor, you get a couple of easy baskets that way and you get confidence. Hopefully, that’s something he can build upon.”
In the past nine games, Wiggins’ shot certainly hasn’t fallen.
He averaged 13.4 points while he shot 34.2 percent from the field — including 17.1 percent (6-for-35) from three-point range — in those past nine games after he averaged 21.3 points and shot 48 percent on threes in the four games before that. Wiggins’ personal skills coach, Drew Hanlen, planned to fly into Phoenix on Friday to work with him privately for the first time since July.
Both Thibodeau and Butler on Monday again challenged both Wiggins and Towns to play better defense. Thibodeau noted, “This isn’t college,” and Butler said both players “can be as good as they want to be,” but added they must play harder and more consistently.
“I think I’m a great defender, to be honest,” Wiggins said before he sat the fourth quarter’s first 8 ½ minutes Wednesday. “I think I’m a pretty good defender. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better since last year.”
The Wolves took the stingy defense they played down the stretch Monday and applied it to Wednesday’s finish, but Butler considered it not nearly enough.
“I’m happy with the way we finished, but I still want to play at that level the entire game, especially on the defensive end,” Butler said.
Butler was asked what it will take for Wiggins and Towns to become all they can be as defenders.
“You’ve got to want to do it,” Butler said. “That’s it. If you have the effort, the heart and the will to do it, you will. If you don’t, if you want to give up on the play, you will. If you don’t want to sprint back, if you want to jog back, you will. Those are the little things that can really change a player from being OK or good to being great. All these little things you’ve got to do as hard as you do everything else.
“Everything is always easier said than done. When you’re tired, it’s easy to jog. But when you’re mentally tough, you’re like, ‘I’ve got to get back, I’ve got to box this man out,’ or ‘I’ve got to call out this coverage.’ It’s the little things we have the most problem with.”