Fifteen days after they lost a game in Phoenix they might not soon forget, the Timberwolves answered back with Sunday’s 119-108 home victory over a Suns team missing injured star guard Devin Booker.
Back then in Phoenix, they allowed a late 14-0 run to a defensively challenged opponent and lost 118-110, a defeat they’ll regret if they miss out on home-court advantage, or the playoffs altogether, by a game come April.
On Sunday, they played for the second consecutive game without starter Jeff Teague and reserve Nemanja Bjelica and persevered, even if Phoenix outshot them 13-9 on made three-pointers for the game and outscored them 28-26 in the fourth quarter.
But by then, the Wolves had established Karl-Anthony Towns’ low-post scoring on his way to a 32-point, 12-rebound double-double. They also established Tyus Jones as an unexpected defensive force with seven steals and two blocked shots in his first NBA start.
By then, the Wolves led by as many as 18 points and by no fewer than 10 points and were well on their way to outrebounding the Suns 48-37, including 19-11 on the offensive backboards.
“It’s good to get a win, no matter what kind of win,” Towns said. “Ugly, very good-looking, it doesn’t matter.”
Towns reminded that each one counts the same and Sunday’s victory made the Wolves 12-8, their best 20-game season start since they went also 12-8 in 2005-06. They missed the playoffs with a 33-49 record.
On Sunday, the Wolves beat an opponent they needed to beat on an afternoon when the Suns played without Booker — their best scorer and playmaker — because of inflammation in his big toe. Without him, the Suns shot 50 percent and still lost for the 14th time in 21 games.
Towns’ aggressiveness at the rim helped the Wolves outscore Phoenix 66-50 in the paint, and his two three-pointers helped them at least stay within sight of the Suns in that category.
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau has called recently for Towns to use his mobility more, particularly near the basket. He praised Towns for doing so Sunday.
“Sometimes when he doesn’t move, it’s hard for our guys to search him out,” Towns said. “When he moves and stays active, they can find him. If he catches it deep in the paint, it’s hard for the help to get there. When he catches it deep, you’re not stopping him.”
The best chance the Suns had to stop Towns on a 12-for-26 shooting day was when the rim or Towns himself did. He missed a thundering dunk attempt midway through the third quarter, but the ball bounded past the three-point line to teammate Andrew Wiggins, who made the long shot for an 85-69 lead while Towns nearly stretched his jersey to shreds as he ran down the court.
“Like iPhone software, they updated those jerseys,” Towns said, referring to Nike’s new reinforced uniforms after the originals at season’s start tore too easily. “It was definitely close to coming off. I would be lying if I said that missed dunk didn’t hurt. I thought I had it. I don’t know how I didn’t have it.”
It didn’t matter, not on a night when teammate Taj Gibson provided his own double-double (16 points, 14 rebounds) and Wiggins and Jimmy Butler each scored 20-plus points.
It didn’t matter, either, after Jones provided a stabilizing nine-point, seven-assist, seven-steal, four-rebound, two-block performance during nearly 39 minutes played in Teague’s place. The seven steals were by two his career high. The two blocks tied a career high.
Jones was so good, Butler answered any and every question postgame by talking only about Jones.
“He was out there guarding somebody, I like that,” Butler said. “He was out there gambling. I guess he took a couple pages out of my book, but Tyus was phenomenal. I like the way he’s playing right now.”