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Timberwolves starting to find themselves under Tom Thibodeau

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Minnesota Timberwolves led by nine-point with under five minutes to play when the Orlando Magic made their charge.

Over the next three minutes, that lead disappeared, just as so many others had earlier in the season. They still trailed with 10 seconds to play when Andrew Wiggins took the ball, dribbled once to his left to create a sliver of daylight between himself and Aaron Gordon and drilled a 21-footer to tie the game.

It was Wiggins’ second clutch shot in the last week, one that helped the Timberwolves eventually defeat the Magic in overtime for their eighth victory in the last 11 games. And it marked the continuing evolution of a young team that is trying to put a miserable start to the year behind it and get back into the Western Conference playoff picture.

After starting the season a disappointing 6-18 under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves have started to show signs of turning a corner in the new year. They have the third-best record in the league over the last 11 games and sit just three games out of the eighth seed in the West heading into a game at Cleveland on Wednesday night.

“The thing that we’ve wanted since the beginning was to get in a rhythm and we’re starting to find one,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “Now it’s just about staying disciplined, staying with the method that has been working and not deviating from the path.”

Straight from the coach’s mouth. Thibodeau has been demanding of his young charges through the first three months of the season, emphasizing consistency in approach and exactness in execution as the keys to long-term success. He still doesn’t hide his displeasure on the sideline with a missed rotation or a rushed jumpshot – the local cable network that broadcasts Timberwolves games has turned down some of the microphones near Thibodeau on the sideline so his growling isn’t quite as audible for audiences watching at home. But he has been quick to point out that he has been pleased with the work ethic he has seen from the team.

“We’re just trying to build the right habits,” Thibodeau said. “You don’t want to get too excited with a win. You don’t want to get too down after a loss. Just learn and improve because they keep coming. I like the direction that we’re moving in because of the way we’re practicing and preparing each day. But there’s a long way to go for us.”

Minnesota was still just 11-26 after giving up a nine-point lead in the final three minutes of a home loss to the Utah Jazz on Jan. 7, but the team points to a game in Chicago against Thibodeau’s former team as a bit of a milestone. The Wolves trailed by 21 points in the second quarter of that game, but rallied for a 99-94 victory that started the set the tone for the team going forward. Going into that game, the Wolves were 27th in the league in defensive rating, a startling statistic for a team coached by one of the best defensive minds in the game.

Since that game, however, the Wolves are seventh in the league in defensive rating (105.2 points per 100 possessions) and eighth in overall net rating (plus-1.9). The result has been a 13-11 record over that span, which is much more in line with what the expectations were at the start of the season for a team that has not made the playoffs since 2004.

Over the last two weeks, Towns is second and Wiggins is third in “clutch” field goal percentage – situations where the score is within five points in the final five minutes of the game – according to NBA.com. Only Kevin Durant has been better.

The schedule gets more challenging with games at Cleveland on Wednesday and at Detroit on Friday before a six-game home stand begins on Saturday against Memphis.

“If you’re doing the right things, the results will come,” Thibodeau said. “When they can see that, that helps. The challenge for us is how do we speed up the process? And it’s by how we work. We always say the magic is in the work.

DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t expect Pelicans to trade him at the deadline

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a decision to make as they approach the trade deadline: Do they think they can re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer to stay in the Big Easy with Anthony Davis?

If the answer is no, then they have to consider trading Cousins at the deadline to at least get something back. There is a lot of context, however, that makes this seeming binary trade/keep decision far more complicated.

Cousins himself doesn’t think he is going anywhere, as he told Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

While the Pelicans have a lot to consider with the unrestricted free agent, Cousins says he is confident that he will still be playing for New Orleans after the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“I am confident in my team,” Cousins said. “I am starting to understand this business a lot more than I did before. You can kind of tell when things are about to come about. We’re a very competitive team. A talented team. I don’t think that will be the case at all….

“A.D. hits me with little jabs about free agency all the time, but he also understands,” Cousins said. “It was Jrue in that situation last [offseason], and we understood his situation. Of course, they throw their little jabs. They throw their little jokes. But they are serious at the same time. They are respectful about it at the same time.

The Pelicans are 15-14 and the seven seed in the West entering Friday night’s games, and if New Orleans has a shot at the playoffs come the deadline there is no way he gets moved. Ownership and management want a playoff appearance. They have greenlit adding one of the game’s top centers (Cousins) to go next to Davis, and last summer they paid big to keep Jrue Holiday at the point in New Orleans. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs (and possibly even if they do squeak in and get swept out in an ugly fashion), everyone in the organization expects a housecleaning. They have been on edge all season. With jobs on the line, they are not trading Cousins and getting worse short term even if you could argue it was the right basketball move long term.

Will Cousins re-sign with the Pelicans next summer? That will be about the money — what the Pelicans offer, and what other teams will offer in what is expected to be a tight free agent market, especially for centers.  DeAndre Jordan will be on the market as well, not to mention second-tier guys who will be more affordable for teams such as Brook Lopez. In that market, Cousins may want to stay where he likes his teammates and seems happy.

But first he has to get past the trade deadline.

Joel Embiid scores over Carmelo Anthony, then they exchange words (VIDEO)

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Joel Embiid gives zero… well, you know where I’m going with that.

Embiid trolls the world and backs down from no man, and that includes Carmelo Anthony. Late in the fourth quarter of the barn burner between the Thunder and 76ers Friday night, Embiid backed ‘Melo down and scored over him, then did a little jawing — which Anthony didn’t appreciate.

I love that Embiid egged on the Sixers crowd after this. He knows his audience. After the game he said this.

Embiid talks a lot — A LOT — but he is backing it up.

For example, in the first overtime Russell Westbrook thought he made a drive that was going to win the game, and Embiid rejected him.

If you did not watch this game, go find a replay. This is the new best game of the season.

Rudy Gobert leaves game vs. Celtics with likely knee sprain. Again.

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Rudy Gobert missed 11 games this season due to a bone bruise in his knee. While the Jazz defense suffered as should have been expected with their anchor gone, their offense found a groove without him — and with more Donovan Mitchell and Derrick Favors — resulting in Utah going 7-4 with their star center out.

Now the Jazz will be without him again for a while — he seems to have sprained his left knee just minutes into Friday night’s game against the Celtics when Favors fell back into him. That is the same knee he injured before. Gobert was forced to leave and will not return to the game.

If that diagnosis holds, it will be weeks again the Jazz will be without Gobert.

The Jazz know how to play without Gobert. Favors moves to center and while he’s not near the same defender his offensive skills got them buckets and opened up the floor. The rookie Mitchell, as well as Ricky Rubio at points, took advantage of it to give the Jazz a top-10 offense with Gobert out. They need to find that groove again.

Still, Utah needs Gobert back and himself to really reach the heights they are capable of.

Veteran NBA official Monty McCutchen to be head of referee development, training

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After 25 seasons running up and down the NBA hardwood and refereeing more than 1,400 games, NBA official Monty McCutchen got a promotion.

He officiated his last game Thursday night in Minnesota and will move to a desk at the league office where his new title is Vice President, Head of Referee Development and Training.

“Monty has earned the respect of players, coaches and his peers during an exemplary career as an NBA official,” said Senior Vice President, Head of Referee Operations Michelle D. Johnson (who started on the job in October).  “He understands as well as anyone what it takes to be an outstanding referee and how the league can best support its officials.  With his wealth of insight and experience, Monty is uniquely suited for a leadership role in our officiating program.”

“I’m excited for the opportunity to channel my passion for the officiating profession in a new way,” McCutchen said.  “While I’ll miss officiating games, I’m grateful to continue working with our incredibly talented referee staff as part of an organization so dedicated to excellence and innovation.”

Despite what some fans like to blast on Twitter (especially during the playoffs), NBA officials are the best trained and flat-out best basketball referees in the world (if you don’t think so, watch the college/scab referees from the last lockout of the refs, it was painful). Could they improve? Sure. Hopefully, McCutchen can help do that in his new position.