Unlike last year, Wolves have been at their best at the end
MINNEAPOLIS — There is a method to the Timberwolves' madness this season, a reason Minnesota earns its wins late rather than putting opponents away earlier.
"I think people want to watch those really close games more than they want to watch a blowout, so whatever the fans (want), that's why we do it," Jimmy Butler said. "We'll give up a lead for the fans just so we can make it a close one at the end."
OK, so maybe that was a joke. The Timberwolves likely haven't intentionally given away large fourth-quarter leads against opponents such as Utah, Oklahoma City and New Orleans just for kicks. But it's OK for the Wolves to laugh that off, because in the end, they've won all those games anyway.
Unlike last season, when the going gets tough late, the Wolves have been at their best. After going 15-30 in games last year that were within five points in the final five minutes, Minnesota is 5-1 in such situations this season. Their late-game successes are the reason the Wolves' season is currently on the right track.
"We can execute when the game comes into the clutch," center Karl-Anthony Towns said. "We've had all our wins in clutch moments, so it just shows we can pull games out at the end."
Which was not a characteristic of last year's team. Late-game implosions defined Minnesota's disappointing 2016-17 season as the young Wolves failed to execute down the stretch to complete comebacks or, more often, hold onto leads.
And while it was easy to point at Minnesota's struggling defense as the problem, the Wolves' offense was just as much to blame. Minnesota had the third-worst offense in the NBA last season in "clutch" situations, a jarring statistic given the Wolves had a top-10 offense overall.
It's been a 180 change thus far this season, with Minnesota sporting the sixth-best "clutch" offense.
"Execution," Andrew Wiggins said of Minnesota's newfound late-game success. "People have been making big plays and we have vets on the floor that know how to win, that have been winning their whole career."
Veteran experience seems to play a big role in tenuous times. That might explain why this year's more-experienced group has succeeded when the past younger Minnesota teams have failed. Butler said late-game reps, even in practice, are needed for growth.
"It's different at every level, how late-game execution goes, from high school to grade school to college, they're all (requiring) different ways (of doing it)," Towns said. "Little things you can get away with, there's little things you can't get away with, there's things that you should do, and there's things you shouldn't do that differs from college to the NBA.
"Especially last year, so many games lost so close, you learn different ways to lose and different ways to win. We have great experience, too, now with vets like Jamal (Crawford) and Jimmy and Taj (Gibson), so we have a lot of things in our toolbox that we get to use when we need it."
It's been someone different every game for the Wolves. From Wiggins hitting big shots in Oklahoma City, to Butler making plays at home against the Thunder and Wednesday in New Orleans to Crawford saving the day against Utah to Jeff Teague taking over in Miami, someone new has stepped up nearly every game.
"It's big," Butler said. "We need that from everybody on both ends of the floor. It just shows we're really dialed in. Yeah, we do make mistakes, don't get me wrong, but I think when push comes to shove, everybody has the right thing on their mind and in their hearts, so I think more often than not it's just going to figure itself out."
The ability to win close games matters in the NBA, where everyone is good and games tend to be decided in the final few minutes. Last season, all 16 playoff teams finished in the top 17 in the NBA in winning percentage in games that were within five points or less in the final five minutes.
Those that can win late, win big.
"You really do have to execute," Butler said. "If your first option isn't there, you've got to get to the second, get to the third. It's kind of like a playoff five minutes when it comes to everybody knows who's going to get the ball where, what moves they're going to go to, that type of stuff. So I guess it's kind of getting us ready for where we want to be at the end of this thing."