The last time these two teams played, referees ejected Timberwolves starters Karl-Anthony Towns and Jeff Teague and Utah’s Jaw Crowder, too, from a testy game that coach Tom Thibodeau still didn’t deem tipped any scale.
“That wasn’t contentious,” Thibodeau said then.
Let’s see about Sunday night, when the Jazz comes to Target Center with the regular season’s end a month closer and the Western Conference’s final playoff spots on the line.
In Thibodeau’s mind, contentious is the playoffs, when every possession could spill over into a fight.
Towns was ejected just before halftime during last month’s game in Salt Lake City for repeatedly complaining to the officials about their work, or lack thereof. Teague was tossed with less than six minutes left in the game when he body-checked former Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio and sent him tumbling into the Wolves’ bench.
The Jazz won 116-108 that night in a season that in late January seemed lost but which Utah reclaimed with an 11-game winning streak accomplished just before All-Star break.
Once 19-28 after a 14-point loss at Atlanta, the Jazz comes to Target Center 43-33 and defending like a team nobody, maybe not even Houston or Golden State, really wants to see in the playoffs, if it indeed gets there.
Now big Rudy Gobert is back to good health with the Jazz, Donovan Mitchell is a front-runner for Rookie of the Year, and Rubio has proved himself a leader who helped turned the season around.
Struck in the face late in a game at Detroit, he went to the locker room bleeding profusely and chose to have his wound glued rather than stitched so he could return in time to guide the Jazz to an overtime victory. Two nights later, he made a three-pointer that won the game in Toronto.
From there, the Jazz won the next nine games and 19 of its next 21.
Rubio at times this season has struggled with his shot and the same offensive issues that led the Wolves to trade him away last summer, but also has been a directing influence in the Jazz’s season turnaround.
“You don’t just declare yourself a leader,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said last month. “You lead over time and people begin to follow you and your voice becomes more dominant and you’re heard more. As that has happened with him, it has thrown him more into the game and it has relaxed him in some other ways.”
Rubio also has learned to defend by relying less on himself and his own instincts and more as one of four others who have Gobert behind them as an anchor. Gobert missed 26 games earlier this season because of separate leg injuries. The Jazz was 11-15 without him but is 32-18 with him.
Mitchell is the kind of rookie talent proving the Jazz brilliant for trading up 13 spots to draft him 13th overall last summer. After just two seasons at Louisville and 76 NBA games, he’s both the All-Star slam-dunk champ and a blossoming star.
“I thought it would take a lot more time,” he said at All-Star weekend. “Everything that’s happening now happened so fast. It has been pretty crazy and surreal to me.”
With his height and reach, Gobert is the kind of physical presence who can frustrate Towns — and perhaps did the last time the teams played — in their matchup at center.
In turn, Towns is the kind of modern-day big man who can make Gobert uncomfortable away from the basket because Towns is a threat to score from almost anywhere.
All of it combined for such a spirited game the last time, a night that Wolves veteran forward Taj Gibson called “playoff basketball at its finest” and could be again Sunday with those playoffs now less than two weeks away.
Wolves’ week ahead
Sunday: 6 p.m. vs. Utah
Thursday: 9:30 p.m. at Denver
Friday: 9:30 p.m. at L.A. Lakers
Sun. FSN, Thu. FSN/TNT, Fri. FSN/NBATV
Player to watch: Ricky Rubio, Jazz
Second and last visit to Target Center this season for former Wolves point guard who in January helped spark Utah’s 11-game winning streak that changed its season.
“If it comes, it comes.”
Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins with a laugh when asked if he’s now aiming for 57 points in a game, one more than the 56 teammate Karl-Anthony Towns scored Wednesday against Atlanta.
NBA short takes
• The Timberwolves’ schedule to season’s end has its share of teams that might be aimed at “tanking” for better draft position.
But coach Tom Thibodeau makes a distinction.
“Players don’t do that,” he said. “That’s the teams. Players, the guys who are out there, are competing. They’re not going for not winning. I’ve never been around a NBA player that wasn’t trying to win. We have to understand that. We have to understand how badly they want it.”
• LeBron James surpassed Michael Jordan’s NBA record streak of consecutive double-digit scoring games at 867 after he scored 27 points Friday against New Orleans.
He scored 19 points against the Nets on Jan. 6, 2007, so long ago the Nets played in New Jersey and James was just 22 years old.
Friday, he kept on going with a drive and a two-handed slam to reach double digits, still in the first quarter yet. At game’s end, he handed the game ball to his personal bodyguard, who carried it to the locker room.
• James had scored in double digits year after year already when Utah’s Donovan Mitchell — a frontrunner along with Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons for Rookie of the Year — was in the sixth grade and attended James’ 2010 “The Decision” announcement revealing he was headed for Miami.
Mitchell attended school in Greenwich, Conn., then, and James made his announcement at the Boys & Girls Club there.
“I was a big LeBron fan, I forced my mom to let me go,” Mitchell said. “I wanted him to go to Miami. The people there, the Knicks fans, weren’t too happy. I almost got hit in the head with a Snapple bottle. I was the only one celebrating.”