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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.

Gordon Hayward’s agent says return this season unlikely

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Wednesday night in Boston Gordon Hayward underwent surgery to repair his dislocated ankle and fractured tibia suffered just five minutes into the season-opening game, a gruesome injury that put a pall over the rest of the night.

There had been hope from some Celtics fans that Hayward could return this season, likely for the playoffs, but now that the surgery is complete Hayward’s agent told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN not to expect him back until next season.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who saw the injury. Hayward is in the first year of a four-year deal with the Celtics, they were always going to choose a cautious path rather than rush him back. Under Danny Ainge Boston has always taken the long view, even with all their moves this summer — specifically bringing in Hayward and Kyrie Irving — the target was to be the team set up for next as LeBron James and the Cavaliers faded. That plan does not change now.

Earlier in the day, Hayward had sent a video message out to Celtics fans thanking them for their support in the past 24 hours.

Without Hayward, the Celtics now will focus more on smaller lineups, rookie Jayson Tatum will get more run, as will Marcus Smart in his contract year. Jaylen Brown will be thrust into a more significant role. Also, Kyrie Irving will be asked to do more as the team’s second-best playmaker is now out for the season.

The Celtics will take a step back this season without Hayward, who was going to be crucial for them on both ends of the floor. That’s evidenced by their 0-2 start, falling to the Cavaliers and Bucks on the first couple nights of the season. Boston should still be a team well above .500 and in the playoffs, but they will not be quite the same this season.

Trail Blazers beat Suns by 48, biggest season-opening rout in NBA history

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Any controversy over C.J. McCollum‘s suspension for the season-opener should be put to rest. The Trail Blazers fared fine without him.

More than fine.

Portland beat the Suns, 124-76, Wednesday. The 48-point margin is the largest ever in a season opener, even as the Trail Blazers let a 58-point fourth-quarter lead dwindle.

Here are the most lopsided season-openers in NBA history (openers for both teams appearing twice):

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The 48-point defeat is also the Suns’ worst lost in franchise history, topping a 44-point loss to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1988. It could be a long year in Phoenix.

Marcus Smart and Matthew Dellavedova scrap (video)

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Marcus Smart and Matthew Dellavedova thrive on aggravating opponents, so when matched up, of course they aggravated each other.

Deduct points from Smart for pulling the hold-me-back charade behind a referee. Plus, Dellavedova’s Bucks beat Smart’s Celtics, 108-100.

Report: ‘Tremendous concern’ for Jeremy Lin’s knee injury

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The Nets’ projected record this season came under greater scrutiny when the Celtics traded Brooklyn’s unprotected first-round pick to the Cavaliers in the Kyrie Irving trade. After finishing third-to-last and last the previous two years, were the Nets poised to take a step forward, or would they convey a very high pick to the Cavs?

Jeremy Lin, who missed 46 games last season, getting healthy was a reason for optimism in Brooklyn and pessimism in Cleveland. But it appears the veteran guard could be out a while.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Billy Reinhardt of Nets Daily:

If the injury is as bad as feared, what a bummer for Lin. He came to Brooklyn expecting to play a leading role on a developing team, and he just can’t stay healthy.

The Nets were probably more focused on developing their younger players, but – especially without their own draft picks – there was no harm in shooting for the playoffs. This appears to a blow to that (already unlikely) dream.

It’s a boon to the Cavaliers, though. And whenever something significantly affects LeBron James‘ team, it has ramifications into the entire power dynamic of the Eastern Conference. For an injury to a player on a team most expect to be bad, the medical developments here will be tracked closely around the league.