After screaming from the sideline Sunday night as the Timberwolves won their fifth straight game, 112-94 over Charlotte, Tom Thibodeau brought his nephew into the team’s Target Center locker room.
Thibs introduced little Tommy around. Andrew Wiggins and Taj Gibson charmed the kid. Jimmy Butler signed his shirt.
“Not our colors,’’ Tommy said, pointing at Butler’s red shoes, as Thibodeau laughed.
Before Tommy entered, Butler and point guard Jeff Teague had needled each other across the room, trading inside jokes and overt insults.
This is not the quiet, dour Wolves locker room with which we have become accustomed, but then this team is a departure from the franchise norm.
The line you’ll hear a lot around town today is that the Wolves are growing up, as if nothing more than the passage of time led to one of the NBA’s best records.
That’s missing the point. The Wolves’ dramatic improvement is caused by dramatic change. You could argue that four of the Timberwolves’ top six players this season are veteran newcomers. The Wolves have matured because they acquired maturity.
“We have guys who know how to win,’’ Gibson said.
The perennially disappointing Timberwolves are 7-3. Only two NBA teams have better records.
This is not only the best roster in franchise history, but it is also the most mature. And with players he trusts, Thibodeau is free to display the part of his personality that doesn’t feature veins protruding from his neck.
“That’s what I’ve been seeing behind the scenes over the years,’’ Gibson said. “If you do your job and win games, you’re going to see that, you’re going to see him open up.’’
The Wolves look dramatically different this season because their veterans play with savvy and a sense of purpose. From refusing to whine about missed calls to recognizing and exploiting mismatches, there has never been a Wolves team that has looked or played quite like this one.
The one excellent team in franchise history featured the constantly-cursing Kevin Garnett and two older stars seeking long-term contracts, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. They relied on the three-point shooting of Troy Hudson, who wasn’t sure if he wanted more to rap or score.
That team was built to win immediately. It was not built to last, as Flip Saunders discovered when Cassell spent his second year with the Wolves getting Saunders fired.
What we have seen in a mere 10 games this season is that the Wolves’ veteran additions think like Thibs, and are willing to loan their Thibs-to-English dictionaries to younger teammates.
The Wolves are 7-1 when Butler plays. Point guard Jeff Teague had perhaps his most complete game for the Wolves on Sunday. Gibson handles dirty work in the paint. Jamal Crawford is even better when you watch him every minute of every game than he is when you watch him on highlight shows.
The front office didn’t add to its young core so much as it remade the starting lineup. This team features three new starters plus Crawford, who should lead the bench in scoring, given Shabazz Muhammad’s bizarre struggles.
Butler. Teague. Gibson. Crawford. They are the reason the Wolves find themselves near the top of the standings even as Wiggins and Towns, still remarkable talents and budding superstars, experience slight statistical declines from last year.
“It’s all about winning,’’ Butler said, as he always says when asked about statistics.
Asked specifically about Butler and Gibson’s influence, Thibodeau said: “I think it helps with everybody. I think the more experience everyone gains, that helps also, but I think when you have guys that are veterans too, the things that Jeff has been through, and Jamal, that adds to the group, also.
“So I think we have a good blend of guys now. In looking back to last year, we were probably too young.’’
Late Sunday, Tom and Tommy joked with Wiggins, Butler and Gibson, then headed to Tom’s office. One of them wore a large smile, and it wasn’t the one with Butler’s signature on his shirt.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org