The Timberwolves were reeling again, and another fourth-quarter disappointment felt inevitable.
After clawing their way back from a 21-point first-half deficit, Tom Thibodeau’s group had led for all but a few possessions of the final period. But, with the Bulls trailing by four, Jimmy Butler recorded steals on consecutive possessions and turned both takeaways into baskets of his own that tied the game at 91 with 94 seconds to play.
Here were the youthful Timberwolves, on the road, deploying a lineup with an average age of 23 years old, in desperate search of a win to improve on their NBA-worst 6-18 record.
To make matters worse, the ongoing collapse was a situation Minnesota unfortunately had found itself in before. Of those 18 losses, the Timberwolves had the lead or were tied in the fourth quarter in 10 of them. Their net rating in the final two periods was among the worst in the league, and two days earlier they watched a 10-point fourth-quarter lead evaporate in a crushing loss to the Golden State Warriors.
But there was a different vibe about these Timberwolves on Tuesday night. Perhaps it was the competition – the Bulls have seven losses to teams currently at or below .500 – or the fact that the Timberwolves wanted badly to win for Thibodeau in his return to Chicago. Whatever the reason, the game-deciding sequence that followed shed light on the myriad talent Thibodeu and the Timberwolves possess, and just how good the Timberwolves can be in the not-so-distant future.
After Butler’s pull-up jumper at the free-throw line, Thibodeau opted against calling timeout despite his young group having turned the ball over on consecutive possessions. The decision paid off, as Andrew Wiggins buried a 22-footer from the left wing over Butler’t outstretched hand. On the other end, Dwyane Wade isolated Zach LaVine on the right wing and attempted a step-back 3-pointer that would have given the Bulls the lead.
Wade missed long, and more importantly was late getting back in transition. LaVine, the bouncy 21-year-old who had already played 42 minutes, leaked down court after contesting Wade’s triple and caught a long Ricky Rubio pass in stride for a layup, pushing the Wolves’ lead back to four with 52 seconds remaining.
Reigning Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns then corralled his 12th rebound off a Jimmy Butler 3-point attempt, and LaVine blocked a Wade layup the next trip down to seal the eventual 99-94 victory, the largest comeback in the NBA this season. The standings Wednesday morning will show the Timberwolves a mere half-game ahead of the Mavericks in the cellar of the Western Conference. But the improbable win highlighted exactly why the future in Minnesota is as bright as any team in the league.
The three-headed monster of Towns, Wiggins and LaVine – each 21 years old – combined for 63 of the Timberwolves’ points in the win. LaVine led the comeback charge with 16 of his 24 points coming in the second and third quarters. Wiggins defended Butler most of the night, and still managed 23 points on 8-for-17 shooting, and grabbed nine rebounds, his highest total in nearly a month. Towns struggled from the field, going just 6-for-21, but impacted the game with three blocks and a steal in the third quarter, when Minnesota took its first lead of the game. Towns’ two free throws that pushed the lead to four before Butler’s late fourth-quarter takeover proved crucial.
“I love our young guys. They’re learning, they’re growing, but what they’re doing for guys their age is pretty remarkable,” Thibodeau said. "And they love to be in the gym. I know we’ll improve. We’re not there yet, but I know that we’ll get there.”
Minnesota’s window is just opening. As current holders of the NBA’s longest playoff drought – 12 years – it entered a full rebuild when it dealt Kevin Love to the Cavaliers three summers ago. That deal netted them Wiggins, and a year later the lottery balls fell in its favor and allowed them to draft Towns. Those two became the first teammates to win back-to-back Rookie of the Year awards since 1974. In the same offseason they traded for Wiggins, the Wolves selected LaVine with the 13th pick, and the shooting guard has exploded in his third year. He's a legitimate candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, as his points per game have increased more than six points.
Though their record won’t show it, the Timberwolves have made enormous strides with their three young stars, which Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg defined as “franchise-type players.” Towns, LaVine and Wiggins are three of four 21-year-olds averaging at least 20 points per game (New York’s Kristaps Porzingis is the other). And the Timberwolves are one of three teams who have had three different players score 37 or more points in a game this year. The other two? Golden State (Curry, Thompson, Durant) and Cleveland (James, Love, Irving). Good company, to say the least.
Expectations were sky-high when Thibodeau became the head coach and president of basketball operations this past summer. The Timberwolves had won just 29 games the previous season, but finished with wins in four of their last five, including an overtime win at Golden State against the 69-8 Warriors. The prevailing thought was Thibodeau, the best defensive mind in the game, could improve that side of the ball for the Timberwolves to match their blooming offense, which finished 12th in efficiency.
But Thibodeau said Tuesday he never listened to outside projections. He understood when he took the job that his main initiative in Year 1 was to progress his young talent – the Timberwolves used eight players on Tuesday, none older than 28 years old – and that growing pains he didn't face in Chicago would be part of the equation.
“I tell our players all the time: ‘Don’t get lost in what other people are saying. The only thing that matters is what we’re saying. Make sure we’re not skipping over any steps. Put everything you have into each and every day. Do the right things.’”
Tuesday night could very well be a foundation win for the franchise. While the Timberwolves will miss the playoffs for the 13th straight year, and likely won’t flirt with .500, it’s easy to see the progression that Thibodeau’s group is making.
The defense is still a major work in progress – Wiggins and LaVine joked in the locker room after the game that their off-ball defense still needs plenty of work – as they rank second-to-last in efficiency, an almost-unthinkable number considering what Thibodeau did in his time with the Bulls.
But the offense is humming - ranked 10th in the NBA - and the Wolves are getting positive contributions from other young talent. Ricky Rubio has been inconsistent, but on Tuesday he finished with 10 assists and just two turnovers in 34 minutes. Overlooked center Gorgui Dieng had 16 points on 7-for-12 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds to help Minnesota win the battle of the boards by seven (49 to 42). All the while rookie Kris Dunn, who the Bulls were reportedly enamored with before June's draft, is coming along in his first season, averaging 7.7 points and 3.2 assists in his last six games.
Towns is on pace to become the third player ever to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, a 3-pointer and a block per game (Shawn Marion and DeMarcus Cousins are the others). Wiggins has received criticism for simply being a scorer, but his nine rebounds and three assists were crucial in Tuesday’s victory. And LaVine is no longer an under-the-radar player in Minneosta, having scored 20 or more in four of the last five games. The least heralded of the three, he’s arguably been Minnesota’s top player this year.
There will be plenty of growing pains moving forward – the Bulls shot 73 percent in the first quarter, and the Wolves’ offense disappeared for much of the fourth quarter when they could have put the Bulls away – and the Timberwolves are still a few years away from truly competing. But with their core in tact and, as Thibodeau alluded to, having the right mindset on what it takes to win, the future looks bright in Minnesota behind a trio of rising stars still young enough to be competing collegiately.
Each had a significant contribution on Tuesday in a come-from-behind road victory over a team competing for a spot among the East’s best. Now the young Wolves’ initiative will be building on such a win, learning from the positives on what it takes to compete on a nightly basis, and growing as a unit. And they’ll do so under a head coach who, as the Bulls learned for five seasons, won’t be satisfied with a single win in December.
“We have to build on it. It can’t be a one-game thing,” Thibodeau said. “We have to keep doing it. We have to do it day after day. Hopefully we can learn from that and continue to build.”
If Tuesday night was any indication, they will.