With 8.8 seconds remaining Monday night, Karl-Anthony Towns secured a rebound and was headed to the free-throw line to seal the Wolves’ 124-120 victory over LeBron James and the Lakers.
The Target Center, sold out for the second time after plenty of seats were available last week, was whipped in a frenzy around them, celebrating a rare happy moment in a shrouded beginning to the season.
Towns and Jimmy Butler, the confounding star who has criticized Towns and fellow teammate Andrew Wiggins, made eye contact and exchange a quick high-five. There was little emotion in the exchange. Just a quick acknowledgment that at least for Monday, all was OK.
“We came out to play some basketball,” Butler said.
Towns and Butler were the springs of a needed bounce-back effort following a disastrous 30-points loss to the Bucks on Friday.
It was after that game that coach Tom Thibodeau spoke of needing to avoid the human tendency of having the histrionics around Butler’s trade request seep onto the floor.
“There will be some ups and downs and how you deal with both are important,” Thibodeau said. “If things are going well, if you start to feel too good about yourself, you’re usually going to get knocked down. You also have to know how to lift yourself up when things aren’t going your way.”
The Wolves got back up Monday. Butler had 32 points and made a career-high six three-pointers (five in the fourth quarter) as the Wolves outraced the Lakers in a game that had a breakneck pace.
Butler’s fourth-quarter bravura propelled the Wolves to a 119-109 lead with 4 minutes, 56 seconds remaining, and when the Lakers cut it to 119-117 with 1:18 to play, it was Butler who provided the proverbial dagger with his last three-pointer of the night, with 19.7 seconds remaining.
“Jimmy all around throughout the game was terrific and had big shot after big shot in the fourth quarter,” Thibodeau said.
Towns, meanwhile, showed flashes of his regular self after struggling in his last few games. While Butler ignited the Wolves late, it was Towns and rookie Josh Okogie who got them charged early.
Okogie, making the start again for the injured Andrew Wiggins, scored 17 points on 6-for-13 shooting, and Towns made an impact all around the floor.
After a block of James (29 points, 10 rebounds) in the first quarter, Towns turned and flexed for the cheering crowd with his mouth agape and veins bulging. They nearly popped out of his body a few moments later when he flexed again following a dunk in transition.
Towns filled the boxscore in both good (25 points, 16 rebounds, six assists, four blocks) and bad ways (7-for-18 shooting, five turnovers), but looked engaged again after seeming out of sorts in the losses to Milwaukee and Toronto.
“I was terrible today offensively again,” Towns said. “But I’m not worried about it. I just want to make sure I do as much as I can on the defensive end to impact the game there. Offense will come just whenever it comes.”
There was enough of it available against the Lakers, who stayed with the Wolves most of the way. They led by two at halftime and one after the third quarter before Butler, who was also guarding James most of the night, commanded the fourth.
“It’s basketball,” Butler said. “I don’t think nothing that’s gone on before this game has anything to do with us going out there and competing. We all go out there, play together, play to win.”
For however long they may be together.