SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Playing stifling defense is becoming second nature to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Such a development should surprise no one who has followed Tom Thibodeau’s NBA coaching career.
Thibodeau is well-versed in how to make life miserable for opponents on offense and gets his players immersed in every defensive scenario. The results have turned the Timberwolves into a scarier team than their record indicates.
Minnesota dominated Utah for the bulk of four quarters on its way to a 107-80 victory Wednesday night. The Jazz’s offense stayed out of sync for long stretches, coughing up 14 turnovers and shooting just 38.9 percent from the field.
“I feel like we want it more,” Minnesota forward Andrew Wiggins said. “We want to play defense more. We’ve been doing a lot in practice (and) shootaround, going through it. I think it’s muscle memory now, starting to kick in.”
Karl-Anthony Towns scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds to lead the Timberwolves. Wiggins scored 20 points, and Shabazz Muhammad added 18 for Minnesota, who won for the fourth time in their last five games.
Utah is the fourth opponent in the last seven games that Minnesota held under 90 points.
“It’s just the discipline,” Towns said. “We’re executing no matter what happens. We’re sticking to our principles and that’s a sign of a team growing.”
Dante Exum scored a season-high 15 points and Gordon Hayward added 13 to lead the Jazz, while Derrick Favors had 10 points and 12 rebounds. The loss snapped a five-game winning streak in the series for Utah, which has lost two straight overall.
Utah shot just 32.7 percent from the floor in the first two quarters alone and led just once. The early sluggishness opened the door for Minnesota to take control right away.
The Timberwolves opened up their first double-digit lead early in the second quarter. Minnesota took a 27-16 lead when Tyus Jones turned steals into baskets on consecutive possessions. Jones took the first in for a layup. He set up a dunk for Shabazz Muhammad with the second.
The Jazz strung together a 10-0 run to briefly threaten the Timberwolves before halftime. Exum created the initial spark with a 3-pointer and Joe Ingles finished the run off with another long-distance basket, cutting Minnesota’s lead to 27-26.
Utah could not erase the deficit altogether before the Timberwolves pulled away again. Towns buried a 3-pointer and Muhammad scored on another dunk on back-to-back possessions to key an 8-0 run that gave Minnesota a 39-30 lead. The Timberwolves then scored on three straight possessions – highlighted by a 3-pointer from Wiggins and a layup from Muhammad – to extend their cushion to 51-35 heading into the locker room.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We didn’t have energy and we didn’t execute.”
Minnesota did not let the Jazz rally again after halftime. The Timberwolves led by as many as 30 points, taking a 95-65 lead on a dunk from Muhammad with 4:24 remaining.
Timberwolves: Towns notched his 46th double-double of the season. He also scored at least 20 points and collected at least 10 rebounds for the 33rd time this season. Both marks rank in the Top 3 in the NBA. … Minnesota has allowed just 88.0 points per game over its last five wins.
Jazz: Hayward set a career high for scoring average in a month in February. Hayward averaged 25.5 points per game while recording 30-plus points five times. … C Rudy Gobert finished with two blocked shots. Gobert has tallied at least one block in 30 consecutive games and leads the NBA in total blocks (154).
Minnesota pulled away from Utah multiple times in the first half behind a strong effort from its second unit. Muhammad finished four points shy of his season high. Nemanja Bjelica tallied 13 points and 11 rebounds for his second straight double-double. It is just the fifth of Bjelica’s career.
Both players contributed baskets in critical stretches that kept the Jazz at arm’s length. Overall, the Timberwolves finished with 40 bench points.
“The bench was terrific again,” Thibodeau said. “I thought they played with good energy. There was good chemistry.”
Timberwolves: At San Antonio on Saturday. Minnesota faces a tough Spurs team only a few games behind Golden State in the chase for the top seed in the Western Conference.
Jazz: Hosts Brooklyn on Friday. Before Wednesday, the Nets lost 25 of 26 games since the start of January and dropped 16 consecutive games at one point.
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