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Timberwolves' recipe for more fourth-quarter success: More Jimmy Butler

Denver Nuggets guard Torrey Craig (3) defends against Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler (23) in the fourth quarter at the Pepsi Center in Denver on Dec. 20, 2017. Isaiah J. Downing / USA TODAY Sports

Through the quarter pole of the season, the Timberwolves' fourth quarters were the punch-line of many jokes. No lead was safe with how poorly Minnesota was capable of playing over the final 12 minutes.

Through 22 games, Minnesota's fourth-quarter offense was bad. Its defense was worse. Putting the two together, the Wolves were being outscored by 15.4 points per 100 possessions in the final frame — far and away the worst mark in the NBA.

But things have taken a drastic turn for the better for Minnesota over the last 10 games. Over that span, the Wolves are outscoring opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter, eighth-best in the NBA.

That's important.

"All these games are going to be close, and you've got to make tough plays," Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. "When you look at every fourth quarter, the intensity level is different, there's a physicality to it that's different, and you have to understand that. And the game is called differently. Putting all that together, you have to read what (your opponent) is trying to do, then you have to play defense."

Ah, defense, the side of the game Thibodeau tries to direct all attention toward. Said Jimmy Butler recently, "I don't think y'all ever talk about us scoring the ball and all that good stuff, I like to talk about the defensive effort."

Well, maybe it's time to talk offense. Yes, the Wolves' fourth-quarter defense has improved of late. Minnesota made enough stops in the final three minutes Monday to rally past Portland, and held Denver to 47 percent shooting while forcing five turnovers in the final 12 minutes on Wednesday.

But Minnesota's fourth-quarter defense has just been less bad over the past 10 games. The Wolves are still giving up 109 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter, ranking 22nd in the NBA.

The offense is where Minnesota is making its hay. Over the first 22 games, the Wolves were scoring 100.3 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter. That number, over the past 10 games, jumps to 117.9 — the second-best mark in the league, trailing only Houston.

The key to late-game offensive success? Butler.

Is it that simple? Pretty much. Butler's usage percentage — the number used to estimate the number of possessions a player uses to either take a shot, get fouled or turn the ball over — was 25.1 percent over the first 22 games. Over the last 10 games, that number is up to 38.7 percent.

Over the first 22 games, Butler was averaging 3.9 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.6 free-throw attempts while shooting 34 percent from the field in 8.3 minutes per final frame.

Here are his fourth-quarter numbers over the past 10 games: 9.7 points (leads the NBA), 2.1 rebounds and 3.1 free-throw attempts while shooting 50 percent from the field and 94 percent from the free-throw line while averaging 10.4 minutes.

Karl-Anthony Towns' fourth-quarter usage percentage dropped from 20.8 in the first 22 games to 17.6 over the past 10. Andrew Wiggins has experienced a similar drop (22.9 to 19.5), while seeing his fourth-quarter playing time also dip — he played just the final 1 minute, 29 seconds of the fourth quarter in Denver.

Those are the types of sacrifices Thibodeau says need to be made in order for the team to win. "We're always going to do what's best for our team," Thibodeau said recently.

For now, and for the foreseeable future, that means Butler will be conducting the Wolves' late-game offense.

The Wolves traded for Butler this offseason to be the late-game closer capable of winning games for Minnesota, and that's what he's doing. He made consecutive threes in the last minute of regulation in the loss to Philadelphia, made a couple of big plays late despite dealing with back spasms in a loss to Phoenix, hit the winning free throws in the final seconds against Portland and then scored eight points in the final 90 seconds against Denver to put away the Wolves' win.

"Just one big play after the next — big shots, drawing the foul again, making the right plays. Tremendous," Thibodeau told reporters after the win over Denver. "That's who he is. That's Jimmy Butler."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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