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Jimmy Butler okay with last loss, “We need to humble our damn selves”

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The Minnesota Timberwolves had won five in a row, climbed up to third in the Western Conference (and third in our power rankings), and they had become everybody’s darlings. Jimmy Butler has pushed his way into the MVP conversation, and Karl-Anthony Towns is finally defending well. This is the team on the rise that we expected.

Then Minnesota lost to the Orlando Magic Tuesday night. Orlando is arguably the worst team in the NBA and Minnesota had no answer for Evan Fournier, who dropped 32.

Butler is okay with that. Sort of. He doesn’t like losing but told ESPN the Timberwolves needed to be brought back down to earth.

“We need to humble our damn selves,” Butler told reporters after the Timberwolves fell to the Orlando Magic 108-102 on Tuesday night. “I’m glad we lost. Came in here on our high horse, thinking we’re a really good team, and we haven’t done anything yet. Good for us, man.”

That’s a good lesson for a good young team. As Minnesota gets better and better there will be a target on their back nightly — it’s not an easy burden to carry. Ask the Warriors, Cavaliers or other elite teams past and present — you get the best shot of the other team every night, and that requires a level of focus to keep on winning. Minnesota was reminded of that Tuesday night.

This is all still a learning experience for the Timberwolves — as the playoffs will be. The franchise hasn’t been to the postseason since 2004, Towns and Andrew Wiggins have never been in a playoff game, and there will be adjustments. But if Minnesota has next as the Warriors fade, or if they are going to rise up and challenge Golden State, these are the lessons they need to take to heart.

Isaiah Thomas fined $20,000 for chop to Andrew Wiggins’ throat

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This may be getting off light.

Cleveland’s Isaiah Thomas has been fined $20,000 for his clothesline of Andrew Wiggins, the league announced Wednesday.

Thomas didn’t argue his ejection Monday night after he chopped Minnesota’s Wiggins in the neck as Wiggins drove across the lane. It wasn’t an intentional clothesline — Thomas was swiping at the ball and missed — but the impact was the same.

Thomas came over to Wiggins while he was on the ground and gestured to Wiggins asking if he was okay before leaving the court. All that likely played into this being a fine instead of a suspension.

Isaiah Thomas ejected after clothesline of Andrew Wiggins (VIDEO)

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It wasn’t intentional — as soon as he did it Isaiah Thomas walked over to Andrew Wiggins to check on him. Then before he left the court, Thomas flashed a thumbs up to make sure Wiggins was okay.

But IT earned an ejection with this one.

In the third quarter, Wiggins was driving across the lane and Thomas made a swipe at the ball and in the process clotheslined Wiggins right across the neck. It was a WWE hit, intentional or not, and the ejection was deserved.

Minnesota has dominated this game, leading by 27 at the half and pushing it north of 30 in the second half.

Three Things to Know: Isaiah Thomas everything Cavaliers could have hoped in return

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Isaiah Thomas scores 17 points in 19 minutes in return, is everything Cavaliers could have hoped in return. The consensus of scouts and executives around the league is that we probably saw peak Isaiah Thomas last season (when he was an All-NBA player who was fifth in MVP voting), that the hip injury that sidelined him for the first couple months of the season would take away some of the explosiveness and shifty lateral mobility that made him such a scoring threat. The question was how far off his peak would he be? Would the Cavaliers get 90 percent of Thomas? 80 percent?

One game is not going to answer that question, but the Thomas that took to the court with 4:32 left in the first quarter (to a standing ovation) Tuesday night looked good — he did not hesitate to pull up from three, he attacked the rim (even getting knocked down once), and in 19 minutes of play had 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Thomas’ debut was everything the Cavaliers could have hoped.

Cleveland went on to get the win 127-110, LeBron James led the way with 24 points and six Cavs players got into double figures.

Athletically, Thomas looked good and at least close to his old self. Time will tell, and the Cavaliers will bring him along cautiously (he is not playing in the back-to-back in Boston Wednesday). Tuesday night was promising — and the Cavaliers need that. First, because they need another playmaker who can spell LeBron for a stretch — he is tied with Andrew Wiggins for most minutes played in the league this season. Also, the Cavaliers have maybe the toughest schedule in the NBA in December — 12 opponents who are over .500 — and they need all the scoring they can get.

By the way, Damian Lillard returned in that game, too. He had missed five games with a tweaked hamstring and dropped 25 on 15 shots in the loss, hitting 6-of-9 from three. Lillard did his damage from three, only getting to the rim once and shooting more than usual from the midrange (a credit to the Cavaliers defense more than anything). It felt like a normal Blazers game: Lillard and C.J. McCollum against the world. That was not enough on Tuesday.

2) Kawhi Leonard’s comeback looks nearly complete — 25 points in 30 minutes vs. Knicks. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have been easing Kawhi Leonard back from the quad injury that sidelined him to start the season, but the training wheels seem to be coming off.

Leonard set the tone from the start at Madison Square Garden Tuesday and finished the night with 25 points on 8-of-20 shooting (his efficiency is not yet up to where it was last season) in 30 minutes of play. His catch-and-shoot rhythm and touch are not back yet, but he was getting his shots and when the double-teams came his recognition and passing were on.

LaMarcus Aldridge continues to play like an All-Star, scoring 29 points and carving up the Knicks front line all night. Aldridge is getting to his spots on the floor (having Leonard back as a threat helps with those matchups and spacing), and when he does he’s almost unstoppable.

3) Manu Ginobili’s alley-oop pass goes in for three, referees miss it and things get weird. Manu Ginobili is so good at alley-oop passes he doesn’t need the finisher.

This is the play everyone is talking about from Tuesday night — Manu Ginobili tries to throw a lob entry pass to the fronted LaMarcus Aldridge, but instead throws it through the rim — but it bounces through the rim at a strange angle, the referees miss it and play just continues on.

When play stopped the Spurs protested (including Gregg Popovich, who admitted he didn’t see it when it happened, he was just going off what his assistant coaches said), the referees conferred, then decided it was a two, then eventually reviewed the tape and got the call right (this is why there should be instant replay). It was just a bizarre play. The pass/shot hit the back of the rim and came out at a strange angle, Michael Beasley grabbed it like it didn’t go in, and none of the three officials blinked.

Also out of this one, Gregg Popovich now fifth on coaching win list — passing George Karl — after Spurs beat Knicks.

Three Things to Know: Sorry James Harden, it wasn’t referees that blew 26-point lead

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Boston comes from 26 back to beat Houston on Al Horford game-winner — that’s not on the officials. The dynamics of a nationally televised showdown between two of the NBA’s top four teams changed before the game even tipped off — referee Mark Lindsay hurt his back, leaving just two officials — Tony Brothers and Gediminas Petraitis — to work the game. Both teams were frustrated with the officiating all night because of this (Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens picked up a rare technical arguing a call).

Houston thrived in the first half, getting the lead up to more than 20 behind James Harden, who had 17 points on 10 shots before the break. Houston was in command — but the Celtics adapted to the situation. First, they stopped switching the pick-and-roll with Harden and left one of the game’s best and most physical on-ball defenders in Marcus Smart on Harden. It worked, Harden had 17 points in the second half but on 3-of-17 shooting. In the face of better defense, the motion in the Rockets’ offense came to a halt, which led to turnovers and 4-of-17 shooting from three.

Then came the controversial final seconds, when Harden got two offensive foul calls off the ball on Smart, and in between Al Horford hit the game winner.

Harden vented after the game.

Harden was frustrated and has a valid point about two officials in an NBA game.

However, blow a 26-point lead and that’s not on the officiating. Houston got outplayed badly over the final quarter and a half in particular, and the team’s struggles in the face of physical defense is what cost them this game.

As for those two final offensive foul calls, referee Tony Brothers is less than 10 feet away — that had nothing to do with there being two officials, Brothers saw both plays cleanly. Smart was physical, he was denying the ball and grabbing some jersey, but in both cases Harden extended his arm — that is going to get the foul called almost every time. We’ll see what the Last Two Minute Report says (not that it changes anything).

The Rockets have lost four straight. The team is still on pace to win 64-65 games, the problem is in a West with the Warriors that’s likely the two seed.

2) Bucks dominate Timberwolves in fourth quarter 27-12, get comeback win. This is the story of another Thursday night comeback — Minnesota had a 20-point third quarter lead on Milwaukee,. But that was trimmed to 9 by the start of the fourth, and then the Bucks owned the final frame, 27-12 to get the win.

Erik Bledsoe had 16 second-half points and Giannis Antetokounmpo had a dozen of his 22 after the break, to lead the Bucks to the win.

With point guard Jeff Teague out a few weeks with a sprained knee, Tyus Jones moved into the starting lineup for Minnesota, and in Tom Thibodeau’s traditional fashion he leaned on that starting five for nearly 21 minutes in this game (and it was +15).

On the second night of a back-to-back, no Timberwolves’ starter played fewer than 33 minutes in this one, with Jimmy Butler at 43 minutes. On the season, Andrew Wiggins currently leads the NBA in minutes played, with Karl-Anthony Towns third, Jimmy Butler fourth, and Taj Gibson 13th. I’m not saying all those minutes cost the Timberwolves this particular game, but at some point there are going to be tired legs and weak fourth-quarter performances as guys wear down. Minnesota is on pace to break the longest playoff draught in the NBA, this is an improving young team, but all those miles — especially on young legs — leads to questions about what happens as the season wears on, and as their careers go on. It’s something Minnesota ownership needs to consider.

3) John Wall says against lesser teams Wizards play for stats, not as a unit. Yes, it matters. So far this season, the Washington Wizards are 10-6 when they play teams over .500. However, go against teams under .500 — teams a good Washington squad should beat — and they are 9-10. I’ve seen the Wizards twice this season in person, and both times they were flat and disinterested. Wall explained why talking to Candace Buckner of The Washington Post:

“We talk about it. We say when we play these teams that are not above .500 or not one of the great teams, we go out there playing for stats,” John Wall said. “It’s simple as that. We can see it. I think we all can see it when we play.”

Washington is good, but not good enough to coast to wins consistently against bad teams. It’s easy to look at this and say “well, when they get to the playoffs the Wizards will take the teams seriously and be just fine.” On paper, Washington should be no worse than the fourth best team in the East.

However, if the playoffs started today, the Wizard would be the six seed — and get the Cavaliers in the first round. Got news for you Washington fans, Cleveland isn’t ducking you, and they are the better team. The Wizards are far from the only team to chase stats, again the Wizards just can’t do that and win while others can.

Washington’s poor play and stat chasing is making their playoff road harder. Maybe the Wizards get it together and climb up to be the four seed in the East, then they still get the No. 1 seed in the second round, and that’s after a tough first round against whoever is the five seed (the athletic and long Bucks, maybe). The Wizards are not building good habits or putting themselves in a position to make it easier to go deeper into the postseason, and that’s why these games matter.