Chip Scoggins
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A sellout crowd for a big game on a Monday in early January is … oh what’s the word for it, weird? Certainly un-Timberwolves-like. We need to get used to this again.

Target Center was on fire with intensity and excitement, and it felt like the place to be on a Twin Cities winter night. It’s been awhile, right Wolves fans?

It’s always an event when LeBron James comes to town, but Wolves fans showed up to do more than gawk at the traveling circus this time. They came for the home team.

And, boy, did they get a show.

The Wolves pounced on the Cleveland Cavaliers from the opening tipoff to coast — yes coast — to a rollicking 127-99 win.

“It felt like a playoff game,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We didn’t want to disappoint [fans]. We knew how big this game was. We knew this was a test to see how far we’ve come through the season.”

It can be dangerous to read too much into one game in the middle of the season but, ah, what the heck. Read away.

Wolves fans have suffered long enough. They should be excited about how a remade roster is starting to jell and pick up steam and look like a team that could be dangerous come playoff time.

A performance like this one grabs your attention. Two startling developments gave the game a fictional tone: Shabazz Muhammad got playing time and LeBron finished minus-39. A Bigfoot sighting in the stands would have completed the trifecta.

“I’d like to think that we’re improving,” coach Tom Thibodeau said.

Despite some uneven performances early in the season and a lot of teeth-gnashing, the Wolves are on pace to win 50-plus games. They’re showing meaningful improvement defensively, which has put everyone in a better mood.

January will serve as litmus test to determine if the Wolves can sustain this positive trajectory. The schedule this month includes some of the best teams in the league.

Too bad they can’t bottle up Monday’s formula and take a sip before every game. They played near-perfect for three quarters in building a 41-point lead.

Jimmy Butler’s demeanor after the morning shoot-around hinted at something special. Teams take cues from their best player, and Butler projects nothing but supreme confidence, no matter the situation or opponent.

“This is our home floor,” he said. “We’re not backing down from any challenges. I love this challenge. I’ll be locked in.”

Butler’s impact on the entire organization cannot be overstated. He’s brought a winner’s mentality with his words and deeds. He holds teammates accountable and backs up everything he says with his play on the court.

“I’m taking us against any and everybody,” he said. “You’ll never hear anybody in this league, maybe in this world, say we’re going into this game and we’re going to lose. I’m taking our chances.”

Butler’s value is especially evident in these situations because the Wolves now have a legitimate option to defend a superstar like James. They no longer have to cross their fingers and pray that he has an off night.

“I like matching up with everybody,” Butler said.

The Cavs looked out of sorts from the start. They missed shots they usually make, and the Wolves couldn’t miss.

LeBron finished with only 10 points on eight shots. He played just 26 minutes because the game was never in reach.

Butler was terrific in all facets. He held James in check defensively and flirted with a triple-double (21 points, nine assists, eight rebounds) despite sitting out the fourth quarter.

“What he’s doing every night is amazing,” Thibodeau said. “But [he’s] also bringing the best out of everyone on the team. To me that’s the true mark of greatness. He’s playing at an unbelievable level.”

His teammates joined him at that level in a stunning start to the season’s second half. The arena was full, the atmosphere was lively and loud, and the Wolves played like a team that should be taken seriously.

Chip Scoggins •