In back-to-back games, from the end of one year to the start of the other, progress.
Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau can see it. Even when the team’s hectic schedule forces walkthroughs in hotel ballrooms, when practices aren’t easy to come by, Thibodeau can see his team’s concentration improving.
For the second consecutive night, against teams battling injury problems, the Wolves did exactly what they should do: win big. Monday’s 114-96 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at Target Center — in front of the team’s fifth sellout crowd this season and second straight — was much like the game at Indiana on Sunday. Wire-to-wire, with a quick start and enough defense at the other end to make it stand up.
“When we come out and do what we’re supposed to do, we’re a really good team,” said Jimmy Butler, who scored 28 points and had nine assists and a block. “Especially on the defensive end. Who knows what we’re capable of?”
Sunday, the Wolves opened the game with a 17-0 run. Monday it was 16-0. Both times it held up. Minnesota got double-figure scoring from four starters and Gorgui Dieng, who came off the bench with Karl-Anthony Towns in foul trouble and scored 17 points.
Towns had 16 points and 13 rebounds in 27 minutes. Andrew Wiggins had 21 points. More impressive: Wiggins’ nine rebounds — matching a season-high — and four assists. Tyus Jones, playing for the injured Jeff Teague, scored just five points, but was a team-best plus-23.
The Wolves led by 12 after a quarter, by 15 entering the fourth and by 19 early in the final quarter. And they never really let up.
“A lot of times, early in the season, we were winning but we were winning mainly on talent, not execution,” Towns said. “These last two games we’ve done a good job of execution. The last two games we’ve done a good job of getting ahead and keeping the lead. We put these last two teams away.”
The Wolves won their second game in as many days and their seventh in eight games. They scored 29 points off 24 Lakers turnovers, never letting Los Angeles really get back in the game.
Minnesota (24-14) is 10 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2003-04 season.
Down three starters (Lonzo Ball, Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), the Lakers played hard, getting 20 points off the bench from Jordan Clarkson and 15 points and 12 rebounds from center Julius Randle. But there was never the sense the Lakers would be a threat after Wiggins scored nine points in that 16-0 run over the first 4 minutes of the game.
Afterward, Thibodeau talked about the progress Towns and Wiggins in particular are making on the defensive end.
“There is some irony in having Jimmy here,” he said of Butler. “Because I watched Jimmy go through it. He was fortunate to have good veterans around him. Now Jimmy and Taj [Gibson] are doing it for our guys.”
Of course, it’s one thing to beat teams like Indiana and the Lakers, who are struggling. Bigger tests loom. The Wolves have a two-game road trip coming up, including a game at Boston, before returning home for five in a row against the likes of New Orleans, Cleveland and Oklahoma City.
But: “Our execution recently has been great,” Butler said. “We’re scoring baskets, but also executing on defense. We’re in the right place, in the right coverages.”
And that’s progress.
“I feel like everyone is comfortable,” Wiggins said. “Everyone is together. We like each other. We’re just in a good flow right now.”