Butler carries Timberwolves to win over Suns
PHOENIX - Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said the reason the Timberwolves are off to their best start in 14 years is the same reason they were able to hold off the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night.
“Jimmy Butler was not going to let us lose that game,” Thibodeau said.
Butler scored 12 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter as the Timberwolves blew most of a 22-point third-quarter lead before regrouping to beat the Suns 115-106.
Minnesota has won four of the past five games and six of eight to improve to 20-13, their best start since going 22-11 in 2003-04. And Butler is leading the way.
“You can’t say enough about what he’s done for this team,” Thibodeau said. “He gets to the line, hits clutch shots, makes clutch plays, chases plays down from behind, guards every position on the floor, never takes a possession off ... he’s changed everything for us.”
Butler has scored 30 or more points five times this season, and all five have come in the last 10 games, when he has averaged 26.7 points on 50.5 percent shooting.
“I’m in a rhythm right now,” Butler said. “When we guard as a team and share the ball, I have to be prepared to play and make plays for everybody including myself.
“I feel good. I don’t like to lose. I love to win.”
Andrew Wiggins added 17 points and Karl-Anthony Towns had 16 points and 14 rebounds for Minnesota.
“You can’t let a lead get away and a run like that go unanswered,” said Towns, who had his league-leading 26th double-double in 33 games. “We did a great job of changing the momentum. We did a great job at the end of getting stops and Jimmy was absolutely fantastic ... he does such a great job in the clutch moments.”
TJ Warren had 24 points and Troy Daniels 18 for Phoenix (12-23).
The Suns rallied from 15 down to beat the Timberwolves in Minnesota last Saturday and got as close as two points late in the third quarter before settling for a 2-2 split in the season series.
“We didn’t put up a lot of fight (in the first half) and we dug too deep a hole,” Suns interim coach Jay Triano said. “(Minnesota) is a team that doesn’t play fast, so 64 points allowed (and trailing 63-43) is a tough number to overcome in a game like this. We fought back, but if we play 48 minutes, we give ourselves a better chance.”
Phoenix exploded for 37 points in the third quarter and got back into the game.
With the Suns down 66-45, Warren capped a 20-4 Phoenix run with a layup to close the gap to 70-65 with 5:25 left. After Minnesota rebuild the lead to 13, Warren completed a 13-3 run with an eight-footer to bring the Suns within 82-80 with 59.9 seconds to go.
But Minnesota scored the final six points of the quarter and the first six of the fourth, ending with back-to-back 3-pointers by Gorgui Dieng and Tyus Jones to restore the lead to 94-80 with 10:39 to go.
Phoenix got within five twice in the final two minutes but no closer.
“We came back, we just had mental errors on possession where we have to convert,” Warren said. “We know our second unit is playing really well so (the starters) have to figure it out and play with more energy.”
The Suns’ starters missed their first eight shots from the field and the Timberwolves jumped out to a 12-2 lead in the first five minutes. Butler had 10 points and Wiggins and Jones seven each for Minnesota, which led by as many as 16 in the quarter and 33-24 at the end.
Phoenix didn’t get its first basket until Marquese Chriss scored on a layup with 6:50 left. The five starters were a combined 1 of 11 from the field and no Suns had more than five points.
The second quarter was more of the same. Minnesota scored the first 10 points and extended its lead to 45-24 on a Jones layup with 7:37 left.
The Timberwolves made 13 of 21 shots in the quarter and led by as many as 22 points.
NOTES: The Suns waived G Mike James. James, who was a starter in November after Eric Bledsoe was traded, wound up behind Tyler Ulis and newcomer Isaiah Canaan. With Devin Booker expected to play some point guard when he returns from injury, there was no room left for James. ... Booker was activated but didn’t play. He is expected to return Tuesday against the Memphis Grizzlies after missing the last nine games with an adductor strain. ... Minnesota’s 20-13 record through the first 33 games matches the third-best start in franchise history. ... Minnesota F Nemanja Bjelica (sprained foot) has been out since Nov. 22 but is close to returning.