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Butler, Wiggins lead Wolves past Lakers for second straight win

Los Angeles Lakers guard Vander Blue (17) shoots the ball as Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng (5) defends during the second quarter Monday, Jan. 1, at Target Center in Minneapolis. Jeffrey Becker / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Timberwolves’ schedule is, as coach Tom Thibodeau puts it, “the schedule.” He always says that with a smirk, because it’s well known he hasn’t been the biggest fan of the slate laid out for Minnesota through the first half of the season.

Numerous short road trips and shorter home stands have left Minnesota without much practice time.

On their most recent road trip, the Timberwolves had a three-day stretch in Indiana that consisted of one real practice and two walk through sessions in a ball room.

Maybe that’s had something to do with the Timberwolves’ lack of consistency. Earlier in the year, for each good performance, a mystifying clunker was sure to follow.

But their 114-96 home win over the Lakers Monday night, Jan. 1, suggested the Timberwolves may be putting that trend behind them.

The back-to-back featuring a road game in Indiana on New Year’s Eve followed by a home game on New Year’s Day could be viewed as a cruel joke played on the Wolves. But while they were robbed of the holiday, Minnesota provided plenty of reasons to celebrate over the two-game stretch.

Minnesota throttled the Pacers on Sunday, then convincingly put away the Lakers. The Wolves delivered two wire-to-wire wins in as many days.

Thibodeau strives for his team to put together 48-minute performances, a goal they appear closer to achieving with each day.

“We’re getting closer,” Tyus Jones said. “We’ve still got a ways to go. We’ve still got a lot of areas that we can improve, but we’re slowly getting there. We’re not there yet, but we’re still working in the right direction, so that’s always a positive.”

Thibodeau said his team’s concentration has improved recently. Maybe those ballroom sessions are being taken a little more seriously, with players paying extra attention to their steps.

One day after opening the Indiana game on a 17-0 run, Minnesota scored the first 16 points against the Lakers (11-25). It’s currently a team that looks prepared to play.

And, unlike earlier in the season, when Minnesota would allow large leads to vanish, the Wolves have demonstrated the ability to keep their most recent opponents at an arm’s length. The Lakers got within six points in the third quarter Monday, but Minnesota responded with a 13-0 run late in the third quarter to essentially put the game away.

“We’ve done a great job of making sure we get a lead and keeping a lead, keeping it in a comfortable space,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “People are going to go on runs regardless of what happens. … (But) we did a great job these last two games of really putting the team away, putting ourselves in a comfortable space, but also never letting up on the gas.”

That’s further proof that a maturation process is indeed taking place in Minnesota. Jamal Crawford noted this team, which features a lot of new parts, has still only been together for 38 games now, but lessons are taking hold and progress is being made.

It’s getting to the point where Jimmy Butler no longer has to single-handedly lift the Wolves to win, though he did still pour in 28 points to go with nine assists Monday. Andrew Wiggins stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of 21 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two steals, while Karl-Anthony Towns had 16 points and 13 rebounds while making a number of quality decisions.

Even the bench, which lost Jones to the starting lineup after Jeff Teague suffered an MCL sprain in his left knee, contributed, led by Gorgui Dieng’s 17 points on 7 for 8 shooting.

Minnesota (24-14) is 10 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2003-04 season. But more important than any stat, these Wolves look like they’re starting to really figure things out. Towns noted Minnesota was winning more on talent than execution earlier in the season. That’s no longer the case.

“I feel like everyone’s comfortable,” Wiggins said. “Everyone’s playing together. Everyone likes each other. We’re in a good flow right now.”

Which, for Wolves fans, is good to finally hear.

“I think we’re starting to build good habits,” Crawford said. “Certain things are coming along well, and I think we’ll continue to build off of that.”

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