PHOENIX – The Timberwolves said goodbye and good riddance to the Phoenix Suns with Saturday night’s resolute 115-106 victory at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
The two teams ended up splitting their four-game season series with two days still remaining before Christmas. In the final meeting, the Wolves never trailed, leading by as many as 22 points in the first half and holding steady even after the Suns twice pulled within a bucket after halftime.
Star Jimmy Butler scored 20 of his 32 points after halftime, including 12 in the fourth quarter, as the Wolves (20-13) withstood the Suns’ lopsided 37-22 third-quarter advantage and former Wolves guard Troy Daniels’ six three-pointers. They have won three in a row, four of five and six of eight, this time beating the Suns (12-23) only one week after Phoenix rallied from a 15-point deficit to win at Target Center.
And the last time the Wolves were in Phoenix, they lost 118-110 to a team that had lost its previous five games.
Following Saturday’s victory, coach Tom Thibodeau was asked how his Wolves held off a Suns team that changed the game with a 20-4 third-quarter run and nearly erased all of a 64-43 halftime deficit.
“Jimmy Butler,” Thibodeau said succinctly. “Jimmy Butler was not going to let us lose the game and you can’t say enough about what he does for this team. He has changed everything for us.”
The Suns missed their first eight shots and 21 of their first 28, and they went 14-for-43 in the first half before reversing course by shooting 68 percent in the third quarter and 60.5 percent in the second half.
“We made them miss shots and we made shots,” Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said, explaining a first half when his team built leads of 12-2, 22-6 early and 53-31 by late in the second quarter. “Then we flipped it and it’s your turn: They made shots and we missed shots. That was it. The game of basketball, so simple.”
The Wolves answered the Suns’ third-quarter run with one of their own, 14 unanswered points that ended the third and started the fourth. That gave them a 94-80 lead with 10½ minutes remaining, but a Phoenix team that played its ninth consecutive game without injured star Devin Booker refused to go quietly into the chilly desert night.
The Suns scored seven consecutive points late in the game and three times in the final two minutes pulled within five points. But the Wolves answered each time.
First, veteran forward Taj Gibson scored a putback basket after a Butler missed shot. After Butler’s putback layup with 1:26 left, Andrew Wiggins made a 12-foot pullup jumper from the lane with 27 seconds left. And finally, Butler created a play by creating contact with Daniels and drawing a foul that he turned into two made free throws and a 113-106 lead with 32.7 seconds left.
“Just find ways to win,” Thibodeau said. “This is a tough league. I know everyone says, ‘Well, you should win this game, you should win that game.’ It doesn’t work like that. That’s not how the league is.”
Butler made 10 of 19 shots from the field along with 12 of 13 free throws. He leads the Wolves with five 30-point games this season, and he has averaged 26.3 points while shooting 50 percent from the field and 92.5 percent from the foul line in his past 11 games.
“I don’t like to lose,” Butler said. “I’m feel like in a rhythm right now. I feel like whenever we guard as a team and we share the ball, but whenever I need to shoot it, I have to. I have to be prepared to play and make plays for everybody, including myself.
“I feel good. I love to win.”