Young Timberwolves star Andrew Wiggins played Tuesday as he usually does — like an All-Star for the evening — against the team that traded him away three summers ago before he ever played a game for Cleveland.
But his 41-point night couldn’t keep LeBron James and the defending NBA champion Cavaliers from a 116-108 victory in their only visit to Target Center this season.
Leading by nine points early, then trailing by 14 midway through the third quarter, the Wolves pulled even by third quarter’s end after a 20-6 run. It wasn’t enough, however. Wiggins scored 19 points all by himself in that third quarter, but the Wolves scored only 15 points in the final, decisive quarter.
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau likes to say the games played reveal just where a team is at in its development. Tuesday’s loss suggests the Wolves have grown good enough to carry on a conversation with James, Kyrie Irving and their teammates, but not enough to have the final word.
Wiggins has averaged 29.8 points in five games against the Cavs after they selected him No. 1 overall in the 2014 draft, then swapped him in a blockbuster deal for three-time All-Star Kevin Love.
“Just trying to compete,” Wiggins said. “Just trying to win the game.”
Of those five games, he and the Wolves have yet to win.
“We’re on the right path,” Wiggins said. “We did a lot of good things. There’s still some stuff everyone has to work on. We’re putting ourselves in position to win against every team. They’re the defending world champions.”
Even without injured starters Love (knee surgery) and J.R. Smith (fractured thumb), the Cavaliers often played like it, particularly when it mattered most.
When Thibodeau needed to get his starters some rest after they expended so much energy and will in the third quarter, the Cavaliers pushed back, opening the fourth quarter with a 10-4 run that put James, Irving, three-point shooters Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert, even newly signed former Wolf Derrick Williams right back in control.
If the games reveal where you’re at, the Wolves have shown progress in the season series. The two teams played only two weeks ago, and the Cavs eventually won 125-97.
“I thought the game we played in Cleveland, we played a good half,” Thibodeau said. “[Tuesday], we played good for three quarters. This team has got to play all four quarters.”
That’s a season-long theme, and Tuesday there was no shame in losing to a Cavaliers team controlled by James’ steadying 25-point, 14-assist, eight-rebound performance (including shooting 10 of 14 from the field) and by Irving’s 25 points, even if he had to put up 27 shots to get there.
This time, the Wolves trailed 105-104 after Wiggins scored on a driving layup with 5 minutes, 55 seconds left and 109-106 with fewer than four minutes left before the Cavaliers pulled away by just enough.
When they pulled within that point, James simply found Williams — the Wolves’ former No. 2 overall pick in 2011 signed to a 10-day contract last week — for a thunderous alley-oop dunk and the Wolves never got so close again.
“Hello to Minnesota,” Cavs veteran Richard Jefferson said.
The Cavaliers won the fourth quarter 23-15 and inevitably the game. Wiggins went 2-for-7 and scored only four points in the fourth quarter after he scored 37 points in the first three.
“I thought [Wiggins] got tired,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “He always kills us for some reason. When you play the team that drafted you and trades you away for another great player … he plays well every single time.”