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Butler says Wiggins and Towns 'can be as great as they want to be' ... if they buy in and defend

From left, Minnesota Timberwolves Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jimmy Butler clown around as team photographer David Sherman tries to take their photo real fast as time had run out at the Timberwolves Media Day at Mayo Clinic Square in Minneapolis Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS — The headlines from the Timberwolves' 108-107 win over Phoenix on Monday, Dec. 18, centered on the offensive performances from Jamal Crawford and Jimmy Butler, who rescued the Timberwolves down the stretch.

Crawford scored 16 fourth-quarter points, while Butler had 11. Butler hit the game-winning free-throws with just 2.5 seconds to play. Their offensive heroics stole the show.

But that's not what Butler was focused on.

"That defensive effort the last six minutes is what won us the game," Butler said. "I think there will be a lot of good defensive clips when we watch film (Monday). I'm sure Thibs will find a way to find a lot of bad ones, but I'm going to be paying attention to good ones."

It started with a flurry of Portland miscues, as the Trail Blazers turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions — the first two on illegal screens — the last of which was a steal by Crawford, which he fed up to Butler for an easy dunk to trim Minnesota's deficit to two and bring the Target Center alive.

"I love that," Butler said. "When you're guarding, you're playing defense, that means that you're really competing at a high level when you're flying around, contesting shots, getting rebounds and taking off. That's fun to me. I love the defensive side of the game, because you're exerting energy, and then you're starting to get really lost into the game. You've got to find that every single night to where we're the hardest playing team, but definitely on that end of the floor."

But most impressive was the Timberwolves' defense over the final three minutes, during which Minnesota held Portland — who torched the Timberwolves for the first 45 minutes — to just 1 for 6 shooting and two points.

"That's how I'd like to play for 48 minutes," Butler said.

The Wolves haven't come close to doing that to this point this season. Minnesota is 25th in defensive rating, surrendering 107.7 points per 100 possessions. Even Monday night's performance was far from a complete masterpiece. Portland shot 55 percent from the floor and 42 percent from three.

Thibodeau discussed the idea of three degrees on Monday — "the degree of how hard, the degree of how together and the degree of how smart." Sometimes, he said, players think they're in the right spot doing the right thing, but they're not.

"There are times where they've shown improvement, but there has to be a consistency to it," Thibodeau said. "The NBA is a lot different than college, and we have to understand that. There's a physicality to this, there's a talent level to it, and you can't take plays off or you can't play without great intensity the whole time. The players are too good."

Thibodeau noted the way opposing teams defend Towns and Wiggins. Rarely can Wiggins and Towns get to their spots and catch the ball without a major contest. He said the Timberwolves have to do the same thing to their opponents. They have to be in their stances and read the ball correctly so they can make their rotations in a timely manner. They have to be physical with cutters without fouling. And they must do all that every single play.

Butler noted it's the defensive effort plays that get the crowd into the game, and when the Wolves are lazy on that end, Target Center fills with boos — "rightfully so," Butler said.

Wiggins had a key block in the closing minutes of Monday's win, but the Wolves need those types of plays on a regular basis.

"Please, Wiggs, we need that every game. KAT, we need you jumping up vertically every game and not coming down and fouling," Butler said. "They can be as great as they want to be on both ends of the floor if they buy into it, but they've got to play hard. You can't take too many possessions off in this league, because they've got so many talented guys on the other team."

Butler said if the Timberwolves contest shots, rotate properly, the whole bit on every possession, "oh, it'd be some beautiful basketball."

"We have yet to see that though," Butler said, "so we'll take it to Denver (on Wednesday) and hope those last few minutes (from Monday) carry over."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.