LOS ANGELES – To borrow a favorite phrase from Timberwolves star Jimmy Butler, if his team is going to get where they want to go, they must grow comfortable on a big stage.
Monday’s Christmas night game against the Lakers provided such a stage and the Wolves used it to win their fourth consecutive game, 121-104 at Staples Center.
Monday’s late game capped the NBA’s Christmas quintupleheader and it came with all the trimmings — Santa hats and ugly Yuletide sweaters worn galore, a special national television play-by-play performance by TNT’s outspoken Thursday night crew featuring Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal.
It also came with the Wolves’ 16-1 run fueled by Karl-Anthony Towns’ two three-point plays and veteran guard Jamal Crawford’s two three-point shots early in a lopsided 38-24 fourth quarter that won the game. They did so to defeat a Lakers team that played without injured starters Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Brook Lopez and did so after it had taken a brief a one-point lead.
The Wolves recorded 30 assists -- eight of them by Butler, 10 by point guard Jeff Teague -- on 49 made baskets. Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns played all 12 minutes and were a plus-14 each in a fourth quarter when the Wolves defense held the Lakers without a field goal for seven consecutive possessions for nearly four minutes.
“We’re getting a lot more comfortable in that situation. We have a lot of different options, guys who can make plays — Jimmy, Wigs, KAT, Jeff, Tyus, myself, there’s a lot of guys,” said Crawford, who scored 19 points in 19 minutes off the bench. “But it starts with defense. Whenever we get stops, we get a chance to get out and run and get easy baskets. That’s what really fuels us.”
The Wolves ended a three-game road trip by beating Denver, Phoenix and the Lakers, improving to 21-13 on the season.
“Four in a row is four in a row,” Butler said after making his first seven shot attempts and finishing with 23 points, including 17 in the first half. “Just try to build upon it. We can’t settle at four in a row. We have to go home, take care of this next one [Wednesday against Denver] and make it five.”
Trailing 99-85 with eight minutes left, the Lakers pulled within six points at 105-99 with 4 ½ minutes left during a fourth quarter when rookie Kyle Kuzma scored 15 of his 31 points with Ball and Ingram both missing.
But Wolves veteran Taj Gibson shut the Lakers down by scoring the next five points, including a rather rare three-pointer from the corner on his way to a 23-point night.
Leading 110-99 with 3:08 left, the Wolves never let the Lakers get closer than eight points again.
“He did it last game, too,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said, referring to Saturday’s 115-106 victory at Phoenix. “He just has a knack of coming up with big plays when you need it most, whether it’s a defensive rebound, a blocked shot, a charge, a timely bucket. Most of the stuff he does is just his toughness, being in the right place, reading the ball. He’s relentless.”
Timberwolves reserve forward Nemanja Bjelica returned to action Monday after he had missed the last 15 games and hadn’t played since Nov. 22 against Orlando because of a mid-foot sprain.
He played nearly six minutes on the same night the Lakers played on without Ball and Ingram. He missed the only shot from the field he attempted and had two rebounds and two fouls.
“It’s good to see Belly on out there,” Thibodeau said. “His conditioning probably isn’t where we’d like it yet. But I was very pleased with him being out there. He has worked real hard to get back.”