MINNEAPOLIS — With an improving defense and one of the league’s top offenses, the Minnesota Timberwolves are seeing the fruits of a busy offseason ripen.
The Oklahoma City Thunder overhaul is still showing signs of being green.
Minnesota has won back-to-back games heading into Wednesday’s home game against Oklahoma City. The Timberwolves might be coming off their two most impressive games of the entire season in resounding home victories against New Orleans and Cleveland.
The Thunder lost their second straight game 117-106 on Tuesday to Portland, which was missing star guard Damian Lillard.
“When you’re trying to make improvements, it never just goes like a smooth (line) all the way up,” Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan told the Norman Transcript after the loss. “There’s always these bumps and dips.”
The Thunder believed they had found the rhythm with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony joining Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City in the offseason. The Thunder started the season 8-12 but then won 12 of 15 games.
But now they’ve lost four of six heading to Minnesota after Tuesday’s loss, a short one-game trip home in the middle of five road games.
“You go up and down, up and down,” Donovan told the paper.
Despite the bumps in the road, Oklahoma City is 22-19 and fifth in the Western Conference, three games behind the Wolves (26-16). But the feeling with both teams couldn’t be more disparate.
The Trail Blazers shot 63 percent from the field and were 7 of 14 from 3-point territory in the second half to pull away from the Thunder on Tuesday. Oklahoma City lost at Phoenix 114-100 on Sunday.
The Thunder actually started Tuesday fourth in the league in defensive rating, giving up 105.2 points per 100 possessions. But Portland had its way even without Lillard.
“We should never have a lack of effort. … We should be able to find the energy to go out there and compete on a night-to-night basis,” Anthony told the Norman Transcript after scoring 19 points.
Westbrook fell one rebound shy of his third straight double-double with 22 points and 12 assists. George scored 22 points in the loss, but Oklahoma City is still trying to find the right formula with Westbrook, George and Anthony.
“It’s on us,” George told the Transcript. “Everything is controllable that we’re not controlling right now.”
Minnesota can commiserate. The Wolves had their ebbs and flows in November and the early part of December. Newcomer Jimmy Butler deferred to young center Karl-Anthony Towns early in the year but has taken more of a shoot-first role.
Minnesota won seven of eight games before a disappointing East Coast road trip featured losses at Brooklyn and Boston.
Then the Wolves beat New Orleans at home and led by as many as 34 points, a season-high mark to that point. Hosting LeBron James and Cleveland on Monday, Minnesota dominated play, led by as many as 41 points on its way to a 127-99 victory.
“I think we did what we’re supposed to do at home,” Butler said. “We’re a really good team, they’re a really good team. They missed a lot of shots that they normally make, we all know that. We’ll see them again down the road and hopefully we play the same exact way.”
Butler has preached defensive improvement the whole way, echoing coach Tom Thibodeau. It’s the former Chicago Bulls trio of Thibodeau, Butler and Taj Gibson joining Towns and Wiggins that led to heightened expectations in Minnesota.
The defense is coming. The Wolves have the league’s fifth-best defensive rating over the past 10 games.
Cleveland shot just 39.1 percent from the field through three quarters against Minnesota. James scored just 10 points.
“Well it’s a good sign that the last two games, this game and the last game, we’ve been able to garner a lead and not only keep it, but build on it,” Towns said. “We’re having a lot more maturity. We’re doing a great job defensively. When we play defense like we did tonight and against New Orleans we’re very hard to beat.”
Andre Roberson has missed five games for Oklahoma City because of left patellar tendinitis and isn’t expected back Wednesday.
Minnesota could see the return of point guard Jeff Teague. He practiced with the team on Tuesday and the team upgraded Teague from out to questionable on its injury report. He’s missed seven games with a Grade 1 MCL sprain in his left knee.
“Each day he has done more and more,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We’ll see how he feels tomorrow and we’ll go from there.”