SALT LAKE CITY – The times, they are changing for a Timberwolves team that thumped Northwest Division-leading Utah 107-80 Wednesday at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
You could see on the scoreboard during a night when the Wolves held the playoff-bound Jazz to 35 points at halftime, 53 through three quarters and a mere 80 for the game.
You could hear it in young star Karl-Anthony Towns’ voice afterward, when he queried reporters for details of that night’s Denver and New Orleans games.
The Wolves remain three games behind Denver in pursuit of the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot after the Nuggets won in Milwaukee, too, on Wednesday. But they now are 10th place in the West, with only Denver and Sacramento (at the moment) ahead of a team that is discovering what both a playoff push and stifling defense feel like.
The same team that allowed Houston 58 three-point attempts and 142 points just four nights earlier has held Chicago, Sacramento, Dallas and now the Jazz under 90 points and Denver under 100 in their last seven games.
They also are 5-2 in those games.
“I feel like we want it more,” Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins said. “We want to play defense more. We’ve been going through it in practice and shootarounds. I think it’s just muscle memory really starting to kick in.”
It’s what Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said he has told his players all along: As soon as they play defense with the same passion and attention they possess for scoring the ball, they’ll win consistently.
On Wednesday, they built a double-digit lead and held onto it, repelling Utah after it used a 10-0 second-quarter run to chop an 11-point deficit to just one point before the Wolves finished the first half on a decisive 20-5 run.
The Jazz did so again in the second half, only this time the Wolves again pushed back in a big way after Utah couldn’t trim a 22-point deficit to any fewer than 17 midway through the third quarter.
The Wolves’ defense and two more 20-plus point games from Wiggins and Towns sent the Jazz to its second defeat in as many nights. Utah lost 109-106 in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night while the Wolves waited in Salt Lake City on a four-game trip that ends Saturday in San Antonio.
“Over the course of a season, you have a couple games like that,” Thibodeau said. “Everything went our way, they missed some shots they normally make and it took off from there.”
Wiggins’ 20-point night stretched his streak of such games to 19 consecutively, by three the longest in franchise history. Towns’ 21-point, 15-rebound night was his 16th consecutive 20-point game and his fifth consecutive 20/15 game. That matches New Orleans’ Anthony Davis for the longest such streak this season.
The Wolves also continued to get a defensive pulse off their bench from Tyus Jones, Kris Dunn and Nemanja Bjelica, whose 13-point, 11-rebound game was his second consecutive double-double.
The last time these teams played, Utah scored the game’s final 11 points and won 94-92 at Target Center in January. This time, fervent Utah fans shouted down boos by the time the Wolves led by 28 points after three quarters.
“Just working at it,” Thibodeau said, trying to explain two such disparate games nearly two months apart. “The thing is, we still have a lot of work to do. ... Hopefully, we’re building the right habits.”