MINNEAPOLIS - The presence of Kyrie Irving this season has made the Boston Celtics more of a dynamic team with the ball.
They've become quite the force on the other end of the court, too, as the Minnesota Timberwolves again found out.
Irving returned from a one-game absence to help Boston fend off Minnesota, finishing with 23 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in a 117-109 victory over the Timberwolves on Thursday night that clinched a spot in the playoffs for the Celtics.
"That's one of the goals," Irving said. "Just glad we got it out of the way pretty early."
Al Horford added 20 points, eight rebounds, six assists and tough defense on Karl-Anthony Towns for the Celtics, who stayed two games behind Toronto in the Eastern Conference race with their sixth win in seven games. They have three more losses than the Raptors.
Marcus Morris added 17 points for the Celtics, whose good vibes were tempered a bit by the hard landing Jaylen Brown took on his back after a dunk late in the third quarter. He was able to walk off on his own with 14 points, evaluated for concussion-like symptoms and taken to a hospital for precautionary testing.
"I was terrified. I mean, I know what that fall is like," said backup Marcus Smart. "I've done it in high school, the same way. For him to get up, that's a strong kid."
Strength was the name of this game for the Celtics, who overcame a career-high 30 points by Nemanja Bjelica on 11-for-16 shooting, including 6 for 9 from 3-point range. Bjelica's first 20-10 game in the NBA was ultimately wasted in the season-high third straight loss for the Timberwolves, who are still trying to find their way without injured All-Star Jimmy Butler. They trailed by as many as 18 points soon after halftime, too much to overcome some second-half surges behind Bjelica and 18 points from Taj Gibson on 8-for-10 shooting.
"We have to understand how hard and physical you have to play," Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I think that's the difference right now between us being a really good team and being a good team."
The Wolves were within five at 88-83 in the fourth quarter, but every other time they were on the verge of cutting the margin to two possessions Irving and the Celtics had an answer on the other end.
Towns finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds, and Jamal Crawford pitched in 15 points. But Andrew Wiggins went 1 for 8 from 3-point range and 6 for 21 from the floor for a too-quiet 13 points. He had four turnovers.
"They were the aggressor," Wiggins said. "They were the harder-playing team."
FAST START, GET SMART
The Celtics posted a 35-point first period for the second straight game, as they did to fuel their 105-89 win over Chicago on Monday. Morris helped them pull away with four jumpers in the final 3½ minutes of the frame, one from behind the arc.
The Timberwolves had 11 first-half turnovers the Celtics turned into 18 points. Towns didn't score for the Timberwolves for the first 15:22, until a 17-footer from the corner fell through the net, but Morris quickly answered with another 3-pointer. Smart put together a three-point play soon after and, less than a minute later, converted a one-handed dunk in one violent motion off a rebound to give the Celtics a 51-37 advantage that triggered a timeout by an angry Thibodeau.
"He gets to his launch pad, he can get up there with the best of them," Irving said.
Morris and Smart helped the Boston bench outscore Minnesota's 42-20.
Butler's absence has come at a most difficult time, with the Wolves in the throes of an unrelenting stretch of games. They lost at Portland and Utah on back-to-back nights last week, and they've got, gulp, Golden State coming to Target Center on Sunday. The following weekend, the night after a trip to San Antonio, they host Houston. The last game against the Rockets on Feb. 23 was when Butler hurt the meniscus in his right knee.
"We've just got to play harder and just trust each other," said Jeff Teague, who had 13 points and eight assists. "I don't think we trusted each other tonight."
Derrick Rose signed with the Timberwolves earlier in the day , giving Thibodeau another experienced former player in the fold in the form of the 2011 NBA MVP on the roster. He was on the active list, but did not play.
Celtics: Morris hit double-digits in points for the seventh time in the last 10 games. ... Irving has scored 20 or more points in 45 of 59 games.
Timberwolves: Wiggins had his streak of five straight 20-point games end. ... Crawford went 1 for 6 from 3-point range and is 1 for 14 over the last three games.
Celtics: Host Indiana on Sunday night. They lost 97-91 to the Pacers at home last month.
Timberwolves: Host the Warriors on Sunday, the only visit to Minnesota by the defending champions on the schedule for this season.
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