Sid Hartman
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The difference in Timberwolves All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns’ performance in the team’s two playoff losses in Houston and its Game 3 victory in front of a vocal crowd at sold-out Target Center on Saturday night was like night and day.

I still don’t think the officials give Towns a break, with Rockets defenders practically wrestling him to the ground at times, but Saturday he found a way to fight through it.

Towns finished with 18 points on 13 shots to go along with 16 rebounds and three assists.

His points were more than he had combined in Games 1 and 2, when he scored only 13 points on 18 shots.

“We see their game plan and we’re just trying to adjust to it accordingly,” Towns said. “You have to let the game come to you. You can’t force things up, shots up, against certain teams. You just have to let the game come to you the way it is.”

That was true for the Wolves, who had five players in double figures and shared the ball incredibly well on offense. The Wolves finished with 29 assists, a number they reached only 10 times during the regular season. They went 9-1 in those games.

“We just tried to play to our strengths,” Towns said. “We played much better defense, finally got the ball into the basket on offense. When you’re playing a team like that — that is that high-powered on offense and they’re that great all-around — we just have to find ways to win.”

Defense comes alive

The Wolves defense also has stepped up overall.

Houston’s offensive numbers are down across the board in this series compared to their regular season. The Rockets are shooting 42.7 percent from the field compared to 46.0 during the season and 31.5 percent from three-point range compared to 36.2 percent. They also are producing three fewer assists per game.

Towns said the Wolves’ offensive numbers were impressive in Game 3, but it continues to be their defense that keeps them close.

“We played great in the first quarter [in Game 2], and I think this game, the way we played in that first quarter, we played for four straight quarters,” he said. “That’s why we were able to come out with a win. When you play a team like this, you know it’s almost like no mistakes can be made. You have to be almost perfect.”

All year long, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau has said if this team was going to make dramatic improvement, it would happen on defense. Towns said they have to keep it up.

“We had to be a much better defensive team if we expect ourselves to be hoisting the trophy one day,” he said. “You know it’s day by day. We have to continue to work on our game and, as a team, be better.”

Contributions abound

Selecting the Wolves’ best player in Game 3 was difficult.

Towns had a huge double-double. Forward Andrew Wiggins played maybe his best all-around game with 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. Point guard Jeff Teague outdueled Houston’s Chris Paul (who finished with 17 points and six assists before fouling out), scoring 23 points with eight assists. Guard Jimmy Butler had 28 points, seven rebounds and five assists, and came back from what looked like a serious ankle injury (after earlier knee and wrist injuries).

And on top of that, guard Derrick Rose played like a star with 17 points, two assists and two steals off the bench.

Towns was asked if this was the Wolves’ best game.

“I think for the situation, what it was, I think Minnesota was yearning for a game like this, especially at home,” he said. “I’m glad we were able to find a win.”

When asked about Butler, Towns said it’s become common to expect the unexpected from the four-time All-Star.

“He’s amazing,” Towns said. “He had an amazing game. He has been doing that all year. He steps up to the occasion and he always delivers.”

Team is learning

Thibodeau said Saturday’s game provided a great glimpse of what he thinks the Wolves can do when they play together.

“I think the important thing is the growth and the improvement and our team is learning,” he said. “When you look at Karl and look at Andrew, this is their first playoff experience; Tyus [Jones] as well. Those guys are young and getting better and better. The vets, some of them have been around, so they have been through the wars before.”

And while the loss of Butler for 17 games after knee surgery hurt the Wolves during the season, Thibodeau said he thinks that challenging stretch of games is actually paying off in the playoffs.

“What you’re seeing now, and the whole second half of the season, we played without Jimmy, and I think this team grew a lot during that period of time,” Thibodeau said. “We were a third seed when Jimmy went out, and to hold onto a playoff position the way that we did was a credit to the whole team.

“The team fought really hard to do that. We finished one game out of the four spot, so I’m very proud of the team. We’re in a huge hole here to erase 14 years of losing. That is not an easy thing to do. This team has fought like crazy to get us out of that hole.”

Thibodeau pointed to several improvements, including one big positive in Wiggins’ postseason play.

“He really played well down the stretch for us,” Thibodeau said. “He made a lot of tough plays, playing great defense, playing with energy and he is really growing. I’m pleased with his progress and I think the sky is the limit for him. The big thing is we have to be ready for Monday’s game [at Target Center]. We’re still thinking about what we have to do right now and this team is capable of doing anything.”

Crawford on series

Jamal Crawford played his 72nd career playoff game Saturday, and he said the Wolves-Rockets series is all about making changes game by game.

“This one is about adjustments,” he said. “Obviously it’s about playing chess. Those guys are really, really good. They can shoot the three ball. They have two high IQ guys in Chris and James [Harden] and they do a good job playing around them.”

When asked what changes the Wolves made from Game 2 to 3, Crawford said it was all about team basketball.

“I thought Jimmy, I thought Jeff, I thought Wiggins and KAT, those guys really set the tone,” he said. “We were able to keep that momentum going. We were much more aggressive. That’s a great team we’re playing over there. Obviously they had the No. 1 record in the league for the whole season. For us, we’ll have our hands full and we’ll need our crowd and this same type of performance.”

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com