The Timberwolves won both the game and their season series against Western Conference rival Oklahoma City with Wednesday’s 104-88 victory, and that could mean something more come playoff time in April.
The first three games were decided by a total of nine points, but the Wolves won this one by a comparatively whopping 16 points at Target Center. They have won three in a row and 10 of 13 overall and six straight at home.
Not that long ago, in the words of Jimmy Butler, the Wolves couldn’t “guard a soul.”
Now they’ve held their past seven opponents under 100 points. On Wednesday, reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook had 38 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, but Paul George and Carmelo Anthony shot a combined 10-for-33, thanks to Andrew Wiggins’ work on George and Taj Gibson’s on Anthony.
They did so while welcoming back starting point guard Jeff Teague after he missed seven games because of mild knee sprain. Teague collected two early fouls and missed three of four free throws in his 25 minutes, but coach Tom Thibodeau credited him and the team’s other starters for reversing course after halftime.
The Wolves are now 27-16 and in fourth place in the Western Conference. They trail third-place San Antonio by 1 ½ games and lead fifth-place Portland by four games.
Finding the urgency and energy they lacked in the first half, the Wolves outscored the Thunder 29-18 — including a 16-4 run that featured Butler’s assertiveness getting to the free-throw line — in a decisive third quarter. They limited Oklahoma City to 6-for-21 shooting in the quarter, including 0-for-6 from three-point range. The Thunder made just six of 25 three-point attempts for the game.
“I guess we’re growing a bit,” said Butler, whose 26-point, eight-assist, seven-rebound, four-steal and two-block night made him the only Timberwolf other than Kevin Garnett to reach those numbers in a single game. “That’s a tough team to beat, the type of guys they have, the amount of talent they have. For us to guard the way we did, it’s huge for us. Now we’re taking pride in our defense. We’re taking it personal with matchups. I like to see that.”
By taking three of four from the Thunder, the Wolves own the tiebreaker should the two teams end up with the same record with it by season’s end.
“It was vital,” center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We’d be lying if we said this game was just another game. We knew this one had more importance than a lot of other ones.”
The Wolves led 12-2 to start, gave it all back in mere minutes and then led again, this time by as many as 16 points in the fourth quarter.
They have their longest single-season home winning streak since the 2001-02 Wolves won nine straight. And they have five consecutive home sellouts for the first time since Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell sold out Target Center five consecutive times late in the 58-victory 2003-04 season.
The Wolves also have won the first three games in a five-game homestand that looked daunting just days ago.
“To be honest with you, we were like, ‘Man, this is going to be a tough one,’ when we looked at the schedule,” Gibson said. “There were so many good teams coming with some momentum. We were shaking heads, hoping we can do well. But the way we’ve been playing, we have a lot of confidence. You see it in a lot of guys.
“The young guys are smiling every day. They know they’re in a good space and the hard work is coming around, but it all comes from defense and everybody understands that.”