NEW ORLEANS – If the Timberwolves’ 104-98 victory at New Orleans on Wednesday teaches anything, it’s don’t assume that this remade team is the one you used to know.
Don’t assume, either, after a 5-3 season start that coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau is happy.
“I’m never happy,” he said. “I’m never happy, OK? But it’s progress and that’s the important thing.”
A team that seemingly couldn’t win a close game a season ago now has won five times by persevering in the final minute. Their five victories have come by a total of 17 points.
On Wednesday, Jimmy Butler’s three-point play with 34.2 seconds left was the difference after the Wolves led by 12 points with 8:07 remaining and by six points with 4:16 left. They scored the game’s final six points — all of them by Butler — after the Pelicans tied the score twice in the final 2½ minutes.
Until the final minute, Butler missed the first four shots he attempted from the field in the fourth quarter. Then with the game in doubt, he faked former Bulls teammate E’Twaun Moore into the air, drew contact as Moore came back down, and made a 21-foot shot from the right side that drew the foul and a free throw, which he made.
The Pelicans never got so close again on a night when their tag team of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis together scored 59 points while Wolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns scored just two points mostly because of persistent foul trouble.
The Wolves also committed 22 turnovers and still won, thanks in good measure to what Thibodeau called Butler’s “great presence.”
“It’s crazy to me because I make the hard ones, but I cannot make wide-open jump shots to save my life right now,” Butler said. “But we win. That’s all I care about.”
That last one he made Wednesday is the same shot many of his teammates say he makes every time, whether it’s the final minute of a practice scrimmage or a real game.
“He hits the shots,” Towns said. “That’s why he’s Jimmy Buckets and one of the most clutch players in the league. There’s a reason why.”
Afterward, Butler used the word “thirsty” to describe Moore’s eagerness to stop him on the game’s most decisive play.
“Only because I played with him and I know how badly he wants to stop me from scoring,” Butler said.
The Wolves’ Andrew Wiggins knows, too, what it’s like to be thirsty. He recognized Butler’s winning move Wednesday.
“He got me with that my rookie season, but on the other side of the floor,” Wiggins said, referring to the third NBA game he ever played, in November 2014. “He got me in the air and just … foul, two free throws, won the game.”
The Wolves are 4-0 in games decided by three points or fewer this season. Last season, they were winless in their first 10 games decided by four points or fewer.
Towns referred to one of Thibodeau’s favorite phrases — Don’t Let Go of the Rope — after Wednesday’s game, saying he and his teammates might have lost their grip in the fourth quarter.
“But we found our handle on it,” he said. “It’s great. It’s a lot of fun. Man, it’s a different feeling. We’ve got a different confidence level since I’ve been in Minnesota. …We’re doing what we need to do to win.”
Just don’t assume that five victories by six points or fewer makes Thibodeau a happy man.
“Thibs is never happy,” Towns said. “Don’t write that, that’s fake news. I know him better than y’all. He’s not going to be happy, but I tell you one thing. We all are. This locker room is bumping. We got the confidence. We have the swag. But it’s about doing it night in and night out. Obviously, we’ve got to keep it going 82 games, got to keep scratching it out.”