It has taken a while, but Minnesota is finally showing the trademarks of a typical Tom Thibodeau coached team. The Timberwolves are making strides on defense and it is giving life to their once-latent playoff hopes.
Minnesota has held four of its last six opponents under 100 points and won all four contests. Three of those teams failed to even reach 90 points. In a 102-88 victory over Sacramento on Monday night, the Timberwolves held the Kings to 44 percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers.
“I’ve said that when we defend consistently, we’d start winning games,” Thibodeau said, following Monday’s victory over Sacramento. “Three of the last four games, we’ve played consistent defense, and we’ve won those games. The one game we didn’t, we lost.”
Defensive excellence has allowed a series of dominant performances from Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns to register a greater impact.
Towns is averaging 29.0 points and 19.0 rebounds over Minnesota’s last four games. He is just the third NBA player in the last 25 years to total at least 115 points and 75 rebounds over a four-game stretch. The second-year center is tallying 24.1 points and 12.2 boards per contest through 60 games thus far. Thibodeau has been impressed.
Wiggins is no less impressive in his progress. He eclipsed 20 points for the 18th consecutive game against the Kings — extending his own franchise record. Wiggins is averaging 31.2 points per game over his last nine games and hasn’t scored fewer than 27 points in a single game during that stretch.
All of the recent success has combined to bring Minnesota (24-36) within three games of Denver for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Timberwolves have not been to the NBA playoffs since reaching the 2004 Western Conference Finals.
Now there’s optimism that drought can finally end.
“It definitely feels different than in the beginning of the season,” Wiggins said. “Games like this (against Sacramento) — these are games we need to help us go forward.”
Playing a tough Utah team should offer a good barometer for how much progress has been made. The Jazz are one of the NBA’s top defensive teams and have a dominant frontcourt that can make life a little tougher for Towns and Wiggins.
Gordon Hayward hasn’t skipped a beat since the NBA All-Star break. Hayward has averaged 26.0 points in Utah’s last three games. Rudy Gobert has been dominant on both ends, averaging 14.3 points and 15.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in the same stretch.
The Jazz (37-23) had a three-game winning streak snapped on Tuesday night after Russell Westbrook totaled 43 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists to help Oklahoma City escape with a 109-106 victory. It marked the 30th triple-double of the season for Westbrook.
The Thunder charged out to an early lead after hitting a team-record 12 consecutive 3-pointers. Utah rallied and took a 106-102 lead into the final minute before Westbrook put his team ahead with back-to-back baskets.
The loss stung, for sure, but Utah still has reasons to feel good after posting wins over Washington and Milwaukee during its three-game road trip. The Jazz are making their own push to solidify a top-four seed and get home-court advantage in the first round.
“After the All-Star break, you want to be that team that gets better and not that team that decreases,” point guard George Hill said, following Utah’s win over the Wizards on Sunday. “That is the focus in our heads. Continue to get better down the stretch here. Hopefully, get a nice (push) before the playoffs.”
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