MINNEAPOLIS -- I'm just gonna leave this sentence right here for a moment and let it sink in: On Monday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves obliterated the Cleveland Cavaliers 127-99 in what was the Cavs' worst loss of the season and one of the worst losses of the second LeBron James era.
I mean, what do you even take from this?
Since LeBron's return to Cleveland, the Cavaliers have only lost six games by more than the 28-point margin from Monday night. Three were to the Golden State Warriors: The Cavs lost by 35 to the Warriors on Jan. 16, 2017, in the worst loss of the second LeBron era. They lost by 34 to the Warriors at home in January of 2016. And they lost by 33 at Golden State in Game 2 of the 2016 Finals, though I recall that ending pretty sweetly for the Cavs.
On Monday night, the Cavaliers shot terribly (the 34.2 percent three-point shooting on the game does not reflect how seven of the Cavs' 13 made threes came in the fourth quarter, with LeBron on the bench and the game long since out of hand). They handled the ball sloppily (13 turnovers). The league's 27th-ranked defense defended terribly (how many times did Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins get uncontested shots at or near the rim?).
The recently returned Isaiah Thomas was ejected in the third quarter after a hammer-fisted blow to the head of a driving Wiggins, a play that seemed to epitomize the Cavs' frustration at being down 30. It was the seventh straight time a Jimmy Butler team beat a LeBron James team. And it was, by a pretty wide margin, the Cavs' worst performance of the season.
"I don't know what tonight was," Kevin Love said afterward, both feet sitting in an ice bucket. "It was just ugly. We got really good shots to start the game, and they just didn't fall. It's easy to say it's just one of those nights. But in a lot of cases there's a lot of things we could do better."
They could have done better, in pretty much every facet. And they will do better when it matters, because if there's one thing we've learned over the past seven NBA seasons, it's that LeBron James teams might struggle during spurts of the regular season, but LeBron James teams peak come the playoffs. So Monday night's loss was -- though certainly dispiriting to the Cavaliers, and symbolic of some of the defensive struggles that have plagued them, and perhaps a symptom of incorporating Isaiah Thomas in the middle of the season -- really not that big of a deal.
But to the Timberwolves?
This was, as far as January games go, a monumental win.
"We needed this," Andrew Wiggins said afterward. "This was my first time beating the Cavs since I've been in the league. All the guys knew that. We made a point to go out there and give it our all and get this win."
Wiggins always seems to play with a little extra juice when he plays against the Cavs, the team that drafted him then traded him to the Timberwolves before he played a single game in their uniform. On Monday he played with an energy and a complete game that, according to head coach Tom Thibodeau, has become more and more evident throughout the year: 25 points, six rebounds and (some) solid defense. He took evident joy in beating the Cavs for the first time.
"You never forget," he said. "I don't think any NBA player forgets what team they're on when they get traded. It's always there."
Make no mistake: If this game was mostly meaningless in the big picture for the Cavaliers, it was a statement game for the Timberwolves. As well as they've played this season -- they're sitting at 26-16 and solidly in fourth place in the West -- there have still been questions with their inconsistencies. Thibodeau has not bitten his tongue about this defense's struggles. But over the past month we've slowly seen the defense, which players have voiced is better than statistics show it to be, to improve statistically. A month ago this defense ranked 27th in the NBA; now they ranked 20th.
What we saw on a January night in Minneapolis could have been the single game we'll be able to point to for this Timberwolves team finally growing into its massive talent and gelling as a team.
"I'd like to think we're improving," Thibodeau said. "I see it in our meetings. I see it in practice. The concentration's better. A big part of the learning is the trial-and-error part when you get out in the game -- are we growing on something? We have two young guys who are growing. They're young. I like what they're doing. I like the way they're moving forward. We have a good mix of veterans, some guys who are older, some guys who are in the middle and some young guys."