The Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves could meet in the first round of the playoffs. If they do, the Thunder have a whole lot of work ahead of them if they want to advance.
Jimmy Butler scored 26 points and Karl-Anthony Towns finished with a double-double as the Timberwolves pulled away in the second half on their way to a 104-88 win over the Thunder on Wednesday.
Minnesota won three out of the four games in the season series. The Timberwolves are currently the No. 4 seed in the West and the Thunder are just a game out of the No. 5 seed, making them arguably the best potential first-round matchup.
The Thunder saw nearly every player on their roster not named Russell Westbrook flounder. Non-Westbrook starters went a combined 13-of-45 from the floor, including a dismal 10-of-33 effort from Carmelo Anthony (15 points) and Paul George (13 points).
Westbrook finished with 38 points, 10 rebounds and five assists on an efficient 15-of-23 shooting. He's scored at least 20 points in 15 straight games, making at least half of his shots in 10 of those games.
George and Anthony, the two players tasked with helping propel Oklahoma City into title contention, have not been nearly as good during that stretch. George has made half his shots in just six of the Thunder's last 15 games (he played 14) and been held under the 20-point mark a half-dozen times. Anthony has shot 50 percent or better five times during this stretch and been under 20 points nine times.
George and Anthony have shot a combined 38.5 percent during Oklahoma City's current three-game losing streak.
The Timberwolves are on an opposite trajectory, winning their last three games and 10 of their last 13.
Butler finished with 26 points, seven rebounds and eight assists to continue his quiet ascent into the outskirts of the MVP conversation. He got to the free-throw line 12 times, the fifth time in the last seven games he's made double-digit trips to the charity stripe.
"[Jimmy Butler has] played unbelievable, he’s playing at an MVP-level and he’s changed everything for us," Minnesota head coach Tom Thibodeau said, per Ben Nadeau of Basketball Insiders. "Like his drive, it’s not really what he’s saying, it’s what he’s doing. And for me, it’s just watching his growth. He’s a perennial All-Star, All-NBA, an Olympian, all those things, but the biggest area of growth has been his leadership.
"I think the mark of a great player is not only to do great things himself but to also bring the best out of all his teammates and he’s done that."
Towns had 18 points and 12 rebounds for his seventh straight double-double. He's played just 60 minutes over the last two games, a pair of impressive blowout wins over the Cavs and Thunder.
Andrew Wiggins also added 19 points for Minnesota.
The two teams combined for 13 threes in what amounted to a throwback, with both sides settling for twos and shots inside the paint.
Minnesota will have a 24-hour reprieve before hosting the New York Knicks on Friday. The Thunder will attempt to snap their losing streak Saturday when they visit the Charlotte Hornets.