LOS ANGELES – This time around, the Timberwolves didn’t need veteran star Jimmy Butler to wear a superhero’s cape.
This time, the Wolves beat the Los Angeles Clippers for the second time in three days, a 113-107 decision in which they were fourth-quarter contributions enough to go around.
On Sunday, Butler scored 20 of his 33 points all in the final seven-plus minutes at Target Center and the Wolves persevered to win by six points after they had led by no more than eight over a Clippers team missing four of five starters.
On Wednesday, the Wolves led by 19 points midway through the third quarter and by 11 points with 7:20 remaining. But they pushed back when the Clippers came close, countering the home team’s 9-1 run by scoring the next eight points unanswered themselves.
By doing so, they won from opening tip to final buzzer for the first time this season.
By doing so, they have started the season 15-11, which is behind only Houston, Golden State and San Antonio in the Western Conference.
Last season, the Wolves didn’t win their 15th game until Jan. 19 against the Clippers in L.A. Two seasons ago, they didn’t win their 15th game until Feb. 3, also against the Clippers at Staples Center.
“Just finding a way to win was probably the most important thing,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said.
They found a way when young star Andrew Wiggins both started and ended that deciding 8-0 run with punctuating slam dunks while Butler scored the four points in the middle. They found a way when teammate Karl-Anthony Towns made what Thibodeau might call “winning” plays defensively when it mattered most. His 21-point, 14-rebound, 4-assist, 4-block, 4-steal game was the first in the NBA this season.
Big men DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis were the only players to reach those numbers across the board a season ago.
Towns blocked big man DeAndre Jordan’s short shot when the Clippers were within five points with 3:27 and he blocked little man Lou Williams’ driving layup with 2:14 in what was the Clippers’ final gasp.
“Oh, they were huge, man,” Wolves point guard Jeff Teague said. “He was battling DeAndre Jordan all night. For him to come up with some big plays down the stretch, we needed him to get this win.”
Until those two moments, Jordan was on his way to a 18-point, 21-rebound night during which 12 of those 21 rebounds were on the offensive backboards. Williams followed a five-point first half on 2-for-9 shooting by scoring 18 of his 23 points after halftime.
“You just got to do what you got to do to win,” Towns said. “For me, it’s not going to be an offensive play I make for us every day. I have to make defensive plays if we want to win the game and I knew the game was on the line. I had to make those plays and I’m glad I was able to do it.”
The Wolves shot 67.7 percent in the first half – their best for any half since the final game of the 2015-16 season – and 54.9 percent for the game. They also made seven of 19 three-point attempts (36.8 percent), including four by Teague, and won after Monday’s loss at Memphis to a Grizzlies team that had lost 11 consecutive games before that.
“They’re the same shots we had against Memphis,” Thibodeau said. “The important thing is are we making the right play? If we’re making the right play, that’s all we can ask. Some night we shooting it better. Offensively, we’re fifth best in the league, but we have a lot of work to do defensively if we want to be the team we say we want to be.”
The Wolves won on a day that started with a morning shootaround at UCLA, which canceled classes Wednesday afternoon during finals week because a nearby wildfire – one of several that burned from Ventura, Calif., an hour north to Bel Air right next to campus – snarled traffic and prevented many from being able to reach campus.
“Terrible,” said Butler, who owns a home in Malibu, Calif., in between the fires. “But I still love L.A.”
Just three days earlier, the Clippers pushed the Wolves to the final minutes at Target Center, where they started two players on two-way G League contract and played without four starters including star Blake Griffin. On Wednesday, the Clippers welcomed back veteran forward Danilo Gallinari, who missed the previous 13 games because of a strained gluteal muscle.
His return to the starting power-forward spot moved rookie forward Jamil Wilson and gave the Clippers another to space the floor after teammates Austin Rivers and Lou Williams combined for 10 three-point shots -- OK, seven by Rivers – and 53 points Sunday in Minneapolis.
Rivers and Williams combined Wednesday for six three-pointers and 46 points, 23 points each.
The two teams hadn’t played in the season’s opening six weeks and now they have played each twice in those three days. “It’s similar to a playoff setting,” Thibodeau said before the game. “It’s a little unusual, but it usually happens once or twice a season. It is a challenge, but it’s a good one. Hopefully, it’s a good one.”
It turned out to be a good one on a night when Wolves veteran guard Jamal Crawford returned to Staples Center Wednesday to play for the first time since the Clippers traded him to Atlanta last summer during their summer roster makeover.
Only four Clippers remain from the team for which Crawford played last season and the team honored Crawford’s five seasons there – the longest he has played for any in his 18-year NBA career – with a scoreboard video tribute during a first-quarter timeout. Crawford crossed his hands over his chest and bowed to the crowd after they gave him a standing ovation after the video played.
“It was special,” Crawford said. “You don’t get those often and it’s very, very humbling. I know my game isn’t for everybody, but I left my heart and soul out there every time I played and the fans were appreciative of it, so I’m thankful.”