Not always accused of either, Andrew Wiggins delivered the kind energy and effort the Timberwolves needed in Tuesday’s 123-109 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.
By winning for the 41st time, the Wolves ended their streak of consecutive losing seasons at 12 and put another game between them and a Clippers team they’re battling for a Western Conference playoff spot.
Afterward, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau — not usually a man known to lavish praise — alternately called Wiggins’ teammates individually unbelievable, fantastic and great after starting point guard Jeff Teague commanded the Wolves offense with a 20-point, 12-assist double-double while center Karl-Anthony Towns reached one of his own, 30 points and 10 rebounds against Clippers star DeAndre Jordan.
But Thibodeau saved this for a player who made four of the five three-point shots he attempted, scored 27 points, blocked three shots and made a play that didn’t impact the game’s outcome except for the message it delivered.
“Wiggins was awesome,” Thibodeau said.
Wiggins made three-pointers from everywhere, including the corners, and provided the inspiration for a third-quarter turnaround in which the Wolves used a 13-1 run to hold the Clippers without a made field goal for nearly eight minutes to end the first half and begin the second.
“Minnesota turned the heat up,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, “and we couldn’t handle the heat.”
Wiggins helped ensure that.
Leading 65-59 with three minutes gone in the third quarter, Wiggins harassed Clippers guard Austin Rivers defensively, poking the ball away and chasing Rivers into the L.A. backcourt. Even after Rivers regained possession, Wiggins pursued Rivers back over midcourt, eventually knocking the ball loose from behind and out of bounds.
The Clippers retained possession, but Target Center fans stood and cheered the effort and Wiggins’ coach and teammates noticed.
“When you see a hustle play like that, that does nothing but unite and inspire your team,” Thibodeau said. “Everyone can see the effort you’re putting forth and that can get you going. Those are winning plays. We’re starting to see more and more from him.”
Already on their way to pulling away from a L.A. team missing injured Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley after halftime, Teague credited Wiggins’ hustle in the third quarter, when the Wolves outscored the Clippers 36-25 and led by as many as 21 points in the fourth quarter.
“He’s one of those guys who doesn’t show a lot of emotion, but when you see a play like that, you get excited,” Teague said. “The whole team got energy off that.”
Wiggins attributed his team’s third quarter and his play all night to circumstance. The Wolves entered the evening eighth in the West, two games ahead of both the Clippers and Denver and ended it in seventh place after Utah lost at home to Atlanta and fell to eighth.
The Wolves now lead ninth-place Denver by 2½ games and the Clippers by three.
“Just desperation,” Wiggins said. “We knew we needed this game. They’re right behind us. It’s a race to the playoffs right now for a lot of teams. We knew we couldn’t let this team stick around.”
The Wolves never have had a winning season unless a guy named Kevin Garnett was on their team.
They haven’t had one since 2004-05, when Garnett, Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell and Wally Szczerbiak went 44-38. They’re now guaranteed a winning season, unless they lose their final 10 remaining games.
“You want to do everything step by step,” Thibodeau said. “First thing, you want to have a winning season. Then, of course, you want to secure a playoff spot. Then we want to be as high [a seed] as you can be. But you want to be playing your best at the end. Hopefully, we can get there.”