SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – When Zach LaVine’s season ended nearly a month ago, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said his team could only overcome LaVine’s absence collectively rather than individually.
Ten games later, you might ask: Is two a collective?
In those 10 games since the Wolves’ three young stars became two, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns together have averaged nearly 60 points a game while shooting better than 56 percent from the field.
No Timberwolf has stepped up to match the kind of three-point shooting threat that LaVine is, but together Wiggins and Towns efficiently have become the kind of two-man, scoring tag team that could rival Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, Cleveland’s LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Wiggins’ scoring average is nearly seven points a game higher in those 10 games than it was in the Wolves’ first 60; his playmaking when defenses collapse around him is better, too. Towns’ average is five points better and his rebounding is improved, from 12.2 to 13.6 a game after he has grabbed 17 or more in each of his past four games.
Towns is the first player in the NBA to do that this season.
In Thibodeau’s book, the only numbers that matter are victories and defeats. The Wolves are 5-5 and remain in a playoff race into March with Wiggins and Towns often teaming for a two-man, pick-and-roll game that vexes opposing coaches.
“We’re playing really well together,” Towns said. “We’ve got great chemistry, the best chemistry we’ve ever had. We’re building with each other, learning from each other, studying with each other. There are things I wish I could do that Andrew Wiggins can do. Watching him do his work, it’s an amazing sight.”
LaVine averaged nearly 19 points a game before he tore one of his ACLs, so Towns and Wiggins merely have combined to score 20 points each game since. Wiggins has done it his past 18 games, two more than Kevin Garnett’s longest such streak in club history. He has surpassed 25 points in the past nine games while Towns himself has scored 20 or more in 15 consecutive games and counting.
After a game last week, teammate Ricky Rubio suggested the two men can become a “legend combo.”
“People don’t realize they’re only 21 years old [Wiggins actually turned 22 last week], and they’re putting up big numbers,” Rubio said. “It’s not just the numbers. It’s the way that they play. They can be great, but the most important thing is winning. We’ve got to start winning.”
Towns has averaged 29.1 points the last month by combining better than ever his 7-foot size and a guard’s ball skills. He has reached 25 points and 15 rebounds each of his past three games, the NBA’s longest streak since a guy named Kevin Love did it for the Wolves in 2014.
“He has been a monster,” Wiggins said about Towns’ recent rebounding. “He’s grabbing everything.”
When Sacramento coach Dave Joerger was asked about Towns’ unique skills, he answered by talking about Wiggins before the Wolves’ 102-88 victory Monday.
“The bigger problem is Wiggins because of his size,” Joerger said. “Towns is definitely talented, I don’t want to take anything away from him. But Wiggins can just destroy you with his size. It seems he and Karl have a real green light, both of them.”
Thibodeau calls Towns’ rebounding since the All-Star break “off the charts” and praised Wiggins’ development toward becoming a better two-way player.
“Andrew’s defense is really coming, his all-around game,” Thibodeau said. “It’s his aggressiveness and just the way he has grown. He’s reading defenses well. He makes a lot of plays. He’s putting pressure on the rim. He is doing a lot of good things, and I think he’s just scratching the surface. I think there’s a whole other level he can reach.”
Wherever he is headed, Wiggins said he will get there with Towns while they wait for LaVine to heal, hopefully in time to start next season.
“We’ve put in a lot of work together over the last couple years,” Wiggins said about Towns. “That two-man game, we’ve built a chemistry with it. I know where he wants the ball. He knows where I want the ball. We know each other pretty well. We’re getting better, but we can do a lot more.
‘‘Zach’s a big part of the team, without him just puts more weight on our shoulders.”