LOS ANGELES -- Taj Gibson's Christmas morning started the same way it has for most of the past eight years.
The affable veteran found himself in a gym away from most of his family, preparing for another game on one of the NBA's biggest regular-season stages. Gibson, who reunited with former Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau over the summer by signing with the Minnesota Timberwolves, knew what his coach expected day in and day out. He knew he would be expected to carry out Thibodeau's message to younger players on a regular basis, providing a tangible example of how a pro should carry himself.
But as Gibson sat inside a small gymnasium on UCLA's campus Monday morning, even he had to smile at the fact that Thibodeau called the rarely seen Christmas morning shootaround in advance of Monday night's game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Even if Gibson was surprised that Thibodeau, ever the taskmaster, would stick to his routine on Christmas, Gibson's happy-go-lucky demeanor didn't change because he knew what the game itself, on the NBA's special day, represented.
"I'm blessed at the same time, man," Gibson said. "To be able to play in almost nine straight Christmas games. A lot of people wish they could play on Christmas. I'm blessed to be able to do this every year."
A few hours later, Gibson delivered the type of rock-solid performance that has defined his career, scoring 23 points and grabbing nine rebounds while going 11-for-13 from the field in a 121-104 win over the Lakers. It was exactly the type of performance Thibodeau expected from Gibson and Jimmy Butler when he acquired both players over the summer.
"You're talking about two elite defenders and knowing how important defense is," Thibodeau said. "And then offensively just making the right plays ... [Gibson and Butler] don't take any possessions off. And I think they understand how hard you have to play on every possession. And sometimes, with young guys, they don't understand that. You can't take plays off, and you can't pick and choose when you're going to play defense. We're still learning in those areas."
The Timberwolves know they aren't perfect, as evidenced by far too many possessions that are slow to develop and lack much ball movement, but the young group does appear to be learning from mistakes made earlier in the season. After allowing an undermanned Lakers team playing without Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram to hang around throughout the first three quarters, the Timberwolves exploded for 38 fourth-quarter points as Gibson knocked down a clutch corner 3-pointer and a long 2-pointer to close the game out.
The offensive fireworks didn't draw the most praise for a Timberwolves team that has now won four straight road games for the first time in two seasons, though. The highest praise was saved for the type of mindset that Gibson and Butler have tried to impose on the rest of this talented young group.
"That experience, that toughness," Timberwolves veteran Jamal Crawford, who scored 19 points in 19 minutes, said of what Gibson and Butler bring most to the team. "Besides their talent and besides their skill set and everything, they're winners. And when I say that, they'll do whatever it takes to win. Jimmy may have to be a big assist guy one night if they want to double team him. Taj may have to be a guy who's just a screen setter that particular night, and be a rebounding guy. Whatever it takes, those guys have no qualms with it. And I think when you have that winning mentality, it spreads out to the whole team."
Butler understands that the Timberwolves still have a long way to go to turn themselves into an elite team, but the progress is starting to show more than it did earlier in the season. The mercurial All-Star was talking some good-hearted trash to some of his teammates after the game about an assortment of topics, hoping that some of the habits he and Gibson have tried to develop within the group are starting to take hold after another win.
"I think the way that we show you have to play hard on every possession," he said of what he and Gibson bring most. "We do have lapses, don't get me wrong, but I think we're building up to that point to where everybody's learning no matter what, home or away, no matter who we're playing against, we got to play hard."
Monday night offered another sign of growth for a team that wouldn't have been able to close this game out a year ago. Instead of simply relying on Butler, the Timberwolves got contributions from a host of players down the stretch, led by Gibson. The veteran power forward scored 11 of his 23 points in the final 12 minutes.
As frustrated as some of his teammates might have been about dragging themselves out of bed on Christmas morning, Gibson is the poster child of one of Thibodeau's favorite sayings: "The magic is in the work." The Timberwolves continue putting in that work, and it is paying dividends for them on a larger spectrum than it has in years.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler combined to shoot 11-of-11 in the paint.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 26, 2017
Timberwolves shot season-high 58.3% from the field tonight, including 82.9% in the paint tonight.
"This won't be the first and only one that we'll play in [and win]." Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said of being on the Christmas stage. "We'll have a lot more opportunities I'm banking on to do this again and again and again."