MINNEAPOLIS – This was Harlem Globetrotters-Washington Generals type stuff. Only LeBron James is never supposed to end up on the Generals and the Minnesota Timberwolves certainly aren’t used to playing the role of the Globetrotters.
Especially when the opponent is the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But that’s exactly what happened Monday night at Target Center as nearly everything the Wolves touched ended up in the basket and everything the Cavs shot hit iron or nothing at all.
The final: Timberwolves 127, Cleveland 99.
And that came after a fourth quarter in which the Cavs finally outscored the Wolves (32-25) after trailing by 35 entering the final 12 minutes.
This wasn’t just impressive, this was a destruction and it came against the defending Eastern Conference champions. The Wolves moved to 26-16 on the season, putting them fourth in the Western Conference and only five victories from their win total from last season.
LeBron James, who many in the sellout crowd of 18,978 paid to watch, finished with 10 points in 26 minutes and, along with the rest of Cleveland’s starters, never left the bench in the fourth quarter. James finished with a career-worst minus-39 in 26 minutes and departed Target Center with a loss for the first time since 2005.
“I don’t care about no damn plus-minus,” James said. “I’ve won a game and had a bad plus-minus, so why does that matter. I don’t give a damn about no damn plus-minus.”
Former Wolves standout Kevin Love did not have a basket until he hit a three-pointer in the third quarter. Those were his only points of the night. Andrew Wiggins, whom the Wolves obtained from Cleveland in an August 2014 trade, put together one of his typically strong games against the Cavs as he finished with 25 points and six rebounds.
Then there was the nightly highlight package from Jimmy Butler, who had 21 points, including a three-pointer at the first half buzzer to give the Wolves a 69-42 lead, nine assists, eight rebounds and three steals.
“It felt like a playoff game, and we didn’t want to disappoint,” said Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, who contributed 19 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. “Just another game with our fans coming behind us, and we didn’t want to disappoint. We knew how big this game was, especially for us. This was a game we wanted kind of as a test to see how far we’ve come through the season and we did a great job defensively.”
Woeful on the defensive side earlier this season, the Wolves finally have been making strides in this area, although not at the pace Thibodeau would like. Minnesota entered Monday’s game sixth overall (103.6) in the NBA in defensive rating in the past 10 games, but remained in the bottom third of the league in that category (106.7).
Butler’s presence is a major reason for the improvement and it was no accident that both Thibodeau and Butler pointed out the Wolves had played three very good quarters but hadn’t finished up as well as either would like. Towns was the only starter to play in the fourth and he was on the court for only 3:19. Butler, who played 27 minutes, has now won the past seven meetings against James.
“What he’s doing every night, it’s amazing,” Thibodeau said of Butler’s game. “But it’s also bringing the best out of everyone on the team. To me that’s the true mark of greatness. It’s not only bringing the best out of yourself, but it’s bringing the best out of everyone. He’s playing at an unbelievable level.”
Butler’s buzzer-beater to end the opening half gave the Wolves a 69-42 lead and just about caused the roof to come off Target Center as Minnesota played before its fourth consecutive sellout crowd at home.
“I’d like to think that we’re improving,” Thibodeau said. “I see it in our meetings, I see it in practice, the concentration is better. I always say the big part of the learning is the trial and error part when you’re out in the game to see: Are we getting better at something?
“I think that we have two young guys (in Towns and Wiggins) that are growing and they’re young. I like what they’re doing, I like the way they’re moving forward. … The good part of it is our young guys are very talented and they’re going to get a lot better.”
Earlier Monday, Butler had said his goal was to make Thibodeau happy.
Beating the Cavs by 28 to end a six-game losing streak against that franchise had to do the trick, right?
“With three quarters of basketball he is (happy),” Butler said. “Me and him both, we aren’t happy with that fourth quarter.”
So how about it Thibs? “I’m never happy,” he said.
He wasn’t joking. But at least he wasn’t angry.