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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.

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.

Playoff losses wearing on LeBron James: ‘I lose sleep’

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost one game before reaching the NBA Finals. The season before that, two. The season before that also two. In Miami before that, the last couple of years they went to the Finals the Heat lost three and four games before reaching the Finals.

This year, the Cavaliers have lost five games already and find themselves down 0-2 to the Boston Celtics heading into Game 3 Saturday night in Cleveland.

The losses do weigh on LeBron, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I mean, I lose sleep,” James said after shootaround Saturday morning. “I mean, at the end of the day, when you lose any game in the postseason, [you lose sleep], so it’s never comfort. Playoffs is never comfort. There’s nothing about the playoffs that’s comfortable until you either win it all or you lose and go into the summer.

“So, for me, it’s always [a] day-to-day grind to figure out ways that you can be better.”

Cleveland has a lot to figure out to win the next two games because if they don’t and go down 3-1 in this series, it’s hard to envision how LeBron can drag this roster back to the Finals (what would be his eighth straight trip).

Offensively Cleveland has to get consistent play from guys other than LeBron (and to a lesser extent, Kevin Love) — J.R. Smith has been awful and needs to find a rhythm at home, George Hill needs to make some plays, Kyle Korver needs to get open and knock down some looks, and some help from the bench is needed.

But that’s not even the end of the floor that is the Cavs real problem. Defensively the Cavaliers recognition and communication has been dreadful, and the passing and player movement of the Celtics has carved them up. Cleveland has outscored teams and not defended all that well for a long time now — that’s how they made the Finals a season ago — but it’s not enough now. The offense and LeBron can’t carry them all the way.

We’ll see after Game 3 if LeBron is going to be able to get any sleep Saturday night.