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Something has got to give tonight when the Cleveland Cavaliers invade Target Center to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Cavaliers (26-13), fueled by the inclusion of two-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas as their starting point, are coming off a season-high 131 points scored Saturday in Orlando.
Cleveland is fifth in the NBA in scoring, averaging 110.5 points per game, having put up that number with Thomas sitting out 37 of its 39 games as he was rehabilitating a torn labrum in his right hip.
Cleveland leads the all-time series with Minnesota, 35-18, and had won 17 of 27 games played in Minneapolis.
Conversely, the young-and-coming Timberwolves (25-16) have developed the mindset of their second-year head coach, Tom Thibodeau.
Namely, buying in and selling out on defense.
Minnesota, which has dropped six consecutive games to Cleveland, has held its last five opponents to less than 100 points scored, marking the first time the Timberwolves have accomplished that since November 2012.
It’s been anything but a quick study for the Timberwolves, though. Since taking over before the 2016-17 season, Thibodeau has consistently taken issue with his squad’s effort on the defensive end of the floor.
“It’s not like, all of a sudden, you have it,’’ Thibodeau told reporters. “You have to keep working at it. And you have to concentrate on the improvement.
“I like the way we’re starting to grow, defensively.”
For the season, Minnesota’s defensive metrics are not impressive, not yet, anyway. The Timberwolves are 20th in the league in points allowed per game (106.7).
However, though it’s a smaller sample size, over the course of its last 10 games, Minnesota is sixth overall, allowing 103.6 points per contest, and over their last five outings, that number has dropped to an impressive 97.2, the third-best mark in the NBA over that stretch.
Led by guys such as Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, both of whom are tough, veteran, hard-nosed defenders, and the athletic Andrew Wiggins, even center Karl-Anthony Towns is buying into the newfound effort.
Always a dynamic, versatile offensive player, the 7-foot, 244-pound Towns, who has pulled down 39 rebounds in the Timberwolves’ last two games, is making strides on the other end of the floor, Thibodeau said.
“Defensively, he’s really starting to see things,” he said. “He’s becoming more of a multiple-effort guy. The rebounding, that’s as good as it gets. Part of it is experience. He has a lot of pride, and he works at it.
“And now he’s been around for a while, I think that’s big.”
While his offensive numbers have dipped this season (20.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.6 assists per game) compared to what he put up in his sophomore season in the NBA (25.1 points, 12.3 boards, 2.7 dimes and 1.3 rejections), Towns’ commitment and effort on the defensive side of the court have helped pave the way to improvement where it matters most.
Wins and losses.
With 25 wins at the halfway mark, the Timberwolves are on pace to win an even 50 games this season. Minnesota has not won 50 games in a season since the 2003-04 season, when led by Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell and Wally Szczerbiak and coached by the late Flip Saunders, the Timberwolves went a stellar 58-24.
Since that season, though, it had been tough sledding for Minnesota, which has not won more than 44 games since that terrific 2003-04 campaign, that coming in the following season.
A year ago, the Timberwolves lugged a 31-51 record to the finish line.
Now, though, it’s a completely different story — and mindset — for Thibodeau & Co.
“We’re doing a much better job of doing more than one thing,” Thibodeau, whose principles on defense are containment of the basketball in pick-and-roll situations, protecting the rim and the interior and then closing out and contesting 3-point shooters, said.
Earlier this season, the Timberwolves struggled to adhere to those principles, which will most certainly be tested by the high-powered Cavaliers tonight, who feature All-Stars LeBron James and Kevin Love in addition to Thomas, who in the two games he’s played for Cleveland, has helped it to average 129 points.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, their 107 points scored through three quarters Saturday night were the third-highest total ever scored by a Cavaliers squad entering the fourth quarter, behind only 112 against Portland on Nov. 23, 2016 and 109 vs. San Antonio on Oct. 18, 1979.
“That’s where we were probably falling short early in the year,’’ Thibodeau said, referencing his defensive principles. “We were doing the first part, the second part, but falling short on the third and fourth.
“In today’s NBA, it’s critical. You have to. It’s a must.”