SALT LAKE CITY – They always say “next man up” in the NBA, but when opportunity rapped a third time this season, the Timberwolves answered with Monday’s 109-98 victory at Utah.
They lost on opening night to a San Antonio team that played without star Kawhi Leonard and did so again last week when Kevin Durant missed Wednesday’s game at Golden State.
On Monday, the Wolves thumped the Jazz, using a 33-14 first quarter and a 26-point third-quarter lead to hold off a Jazz team that played its second game without injured star center Rudy Gobert.
They did so after veteran Jeff Teague dominated a point-guard matchup with former Timberwolf Ricky Rubio and after star Jimmy Butler followed Friday’s promise to be a more aggressive scorer by turning playmaker with a 21-point, 10-assist outing.
Inevitably, the Wolves let a Jazz team that hoisted 40 three-pointers — 12 in the fourth quarter alone — get within 11 points in the final three minutes, but no closer than that.
“That’s what it needs to be for 48 minutes,” Butler said. “But it’s a good start. We won the game, but we let up a little at the end.”
By the time it was over, the Wolves wiped away the bitterness of Saturday’s fourth-quarter collapse at Phoenix and improved to 8-5, which ties two other Wolves’ teams for the best starts in franchise history.
The 2001-02 Wolves started 10-3. The 2004-05 and 2003-04 teams also started 8-5. All three teams, of course, had a fellow named Kevin Garnett.
The Wolves have done so after playing eight of the 13 on the road, where they are 4-4 this season.
By the time it was over, the Wolves had reached 100 points for a 12th consecutive game, a club record, and young star Karl-Anthony Towns with a 24-point, 13-rebound game that included four made three-pointers surpassed 3,000 career points and 2,000 rebounds.
The only other player to do that in NBA history before his 22th birthday is Dwight Howard.
Afterward, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau praised Butler for the “balance” he provided by getting to the free-throw line for 10 attempts and for his playmaking finding the open man that created the 10 assists and Butler’s ninth career 20-point/10-assist game.
He also called “terrific” both Towns’ overall play and Teague’s 22-point night on 7-for-15 shooting from the field that included 4-for-7 on threes. He also had three assists and a steal on a night when Rubio went 1-for-7 from the field, missed all six three-point shots he attempted and didn’t play a second in the fourth quarter.
During training camp, Teague mentioned more than once that more than one Wolves fan told him how much they loved Rubio during his six seasons in Minnesota. On Monday, Teague said his productive night, which came after he got into foul trouble Saturday, wasn’t man against man.
“I’m a competitor, never personal,” Teague said. “I think he’s a hell of a player. I’ve been in the same situation leaving a team after being there for so long. I’m sure he wanted to play well. As a competitor, I want to make sure he doesn’t. But it’s nothing personal.”
Thibodeau scoffed at such a notion, saying “it’s not Jeff against Ricky” and “if you get wrapped up in individual matchups like that, the team is going to suffer.”