MINNEAPOLIS — It was an exciting night to be in downtown Minneapolis. Floyd “Money” Mayweather, Bill Belichick, Antonio Brown, Gucci Mane, and halftime performer Lil Jon were among the stars that graced Target Center on Thursday night.
The Wolves entered the matchup against their neighboring Milwaukee Bucks reeling from the most difficult month of a season that is now two thirds complete.
They finished January with nine wins and eight losses. It was a brutal 17 game stretch that featured three back-to-backs and 11 games against teams that figure to make the playoffs; the Wolves should be pleased to have maintained their fourth place position in the Western Conference heading into February.
The game tipped off with fans clamoring to see more offensive possessions run through and for Karl-Anthony Towns. They got their wish right away: Towns took seven shots during his run in the first quarter. Two of those shots were put-backs off of offensive rebounds, two were three pointers (he made one), two were mid range jump shots and one was a layup. He finished the quarter 4-7 from the field, and the Wolves finished it with a six point lead.
The second quarter saw the Wolves shoot seven free-throws and connect on 3 three-pointers. Combined with another quarter of stout defense, they went into the half with the Bucks in their crosshairs: 60-39.
After a good first half in which he let the offense flow and didn’t force any shots, Jeff Taegue came out of the locker room a step slow. A thematic problem of this season, Teague held the ball late into the shot clock. He was unable to create a passing lane through which to hit Karl-Anthony Towns or Taj Gibson in the post, and he was seemingly unwilling to swing the ball around the perimeter. When asked after the game about the offensive rhythm slowing throughout, Towns agreed that “it was more about moving the ball.”
As the Wolves offense halted, All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo led two Bucks runs that brought his team back to within shouting distance. After Wolves alumni Sean Kilpatrick hit a three pointer with 1:32 remaining in the third, the Bucks were within 12. But the Wolves then went on a 10-0 run into the fourth quarter that saw their lead grow to a comfortable 83-61 margin.
When the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read 108-89 and the Wolves had wrapped up their 11th consecutive win at home, the team’s longest regular season home winning streak since it won 14 in a row from December 16th, 2003 to February 6th, 2004.
Antetokounmpo, who will be a starter for team Steph at the All-Star game at Staples Center in L.A., entered the game averaging 28.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists on the season. But the Wolves held strong against the 6’11 ‘Greek Freak.’ He finished the night with just 17 points on 6-14 from the floor and a Wolves defense highlighted by Jimmy Butler forced him into five turnovers. Antetokounmpo did grab 15 rebounds and dish out six assists, but it was about as quiet as a team can hope to keep him on any given night.
And thus the brilliance of Butler, a wing defender the likes of which the Wolves may have never seen. After acting as the primary stopper against point guard Kyle Lowry and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan on Tuesday night in Toronto—both of whom are All-Stars—he was even better tonight against small forward Kris Middleton and power forward Antetokounmpo. His versatility to guard the opposing team’s primary option night in and night out is a virtue that is truly invaluable for the Wolves younger stars. After the game, Butler modestly credited the entire team with slowing Antetokounmpo.
Butler finished the game with 28 points on 8-15 from the floor and 2-5 from three, and he added four rebounds, six assists and a steal to boot. It was his seventh consecutive 20 point game. Towns shared the load, putting up 24 points on an efficient 10-13 from the floor to go along with 11 rebounds and three assists - marking his league leading 46th double-double of the season. That’s a collective 52 points on 18-28 (64%) shooting for the Wolves’ All-Star duo.
They will look to continue their momentum in front of another sellout crowd at home against the Pelicans on Saturday night.
- The Bucks were noticeably shorthanded tonight. They entered the game without starting point guard Eric Bledsoe (ankle) and the depth of their backcourt was further tested when backup point guard Malcolm Brogdon left the game with what was later reported to be a quad tendon injury. It became a clear issue for the Bucks in the second half when interim coach Joe Prunty was forced to deploy lineups that were less than formidable against a high powered Wolves offense.
- After a seven game stretch since Butler was initially sideline in which the Wolves boasted a league worst Defensive Rating (112.7), they held the Bucks to 89 points on just 38% shooting in tonight’s victory. Behind Butler’s magnificence, the trio of Towns, Gibson and Gorgui Dieng were a powerhouse defending the paint.
On the improved defense, coach Thibodeau said in his post-game press conference that “the biggest thing was getting our legs back under us a little bit. It was good to be back [home].” After tonight, the Wolves move to 13-0 in the Thibodeau era when holding an opponent under 90 points.
- As he knocked down jump shots throughout the second half, Butler continually jawed and smiled at Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown who was sitting court side. Brown is the friend that gave Butler the football that he guards as if it’s his most prized possession. And there were even more smiles to be seen on the Wolves’ faces tonight; from Butler to Wiggins to Teague, it was good to see continued joy from a team that had just lost four of five games for the first time this season.
- Yet again the Wolves managed to avoided a three game losing streak. After dropping two in a row for the sixth time, it was another convincing bounce back win that stopped a tough stretch from becoming a concerning stretch.