MINNEAPOLIS -- When Minnesota faced the Dallas Mavericks in two earlier meetings this season, the Timberwolves coasted to a pair of double-digit victories.
That wasn't the case Sunday as Minnesota had to grind out a close game that went down to the wire at Target Center. While it wasn't pretty, the Timberwolves escaped with a 97-92 win to beat Dallas again.
"For us to come out and do what we did tonight and find a way to win, that's big," said Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 28 points and 12 rebounds in the victory. "We weren't hitting on all cylinders. We came out after three days off, and the best part is we found a way to win."
Towns' big offensive night led the way, but it was veteran Jimmy Butler who carried Minnesota down the stretch. Butler scored 10 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter on 4-of-5 shooting as the Timberwolves (16-11) answered whenever Dallas threatened to make a run.
"I thought Jimmy closed the game out for us," Wolves guard Jamal Crawford said. "It's such a luxury to have a guy like that that you can put the ball in his hands and he can make the right play. More times than not, it works in our favor."
Crawford, who scored 16 points off the bench, hit a pair of free throws with 16.4 seconds to play to put Minnesota up by three. Dallas' Wesley Matthews had a look at a game-tying shot with 11 seconds left, but it hit off the rim. Minnesota's Taj Gibson pulled down the rebound, got fouled and made two free throws to seal the victory.
Harrison Barnes led the Mavericks with 19 points, while Maxi Kleber and J.J. Barea each added 16. Matthews, fresh off a season-best, 29-point game against the Milwaukee Bucks, had 14 points on 6-of-17 shooting.
Minnesota outscored the Mavericks (7-20) by three in the fourth quarter. Dallas shot just 8 of 20 from the floor in the final quarter, including several key misses late.
"I can remember off the top of my head at least five missed layups right in front of the basket, point blank," Matthews said. "That's 10 points right there. That's your ballgame."
Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said he stressed transition defense in the team's practice prior to the game. That seemed to pay off as Minnesota held the Mavericks to just two fastbreak points while still cashing in for 20 second-chance points on the offensive end.
"I think we're starting to clean that up," Thibodeau said of the transition defense. "I think if we do that, that'll be big for our team. That forces your opponent to go against a set defense. You take the easy buckets out."
Minnesota led by two heading into the fourth quarter. The Wolves are now 15-3 this season when in front after three quarters.
Neither team led by more than six points all game, though Minnesota had a chance to extend the margin to seven late. However, Andrew Wiggins missed a pair of free throws, and Antonius Cleveland responded with a 3-pointer at the other end to cut the deficit to 87-85.
Matthews also hit a 3-pointer down the stretch as Dallas pulled within one. The Mavericks took a brief one-point lead when Barea made a shot off the glass against his former team, but Minnesota answered at the other end to regain the lead.
"It feels like we're shooting ourselves in the foot every time when we're right there," said Dirk Nowitzki, who had 10 points and five boards for Dallas. "Bad turnover, they make a tough shot, we miss a layup, we don't box out. It's little things here and there."
As has been the case in recent games, Thibodeau used just a three-man bench of Gorgui Dieng, Tyus Jones and Crawford while playing his starters for extended minutes.
NOTES: Dallas PG Dennis Smith Jr. missed his second consecutive game due to a sore hip. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said that there is no clear timetable for Smith's return. "We've got to get him 100 percent healthy as soon as we can," Carlisle said. "We need to get him back in there." ... Timberwolves C Karl-Anthony Towns collected his 21st double-double of the season. Towns grabbed his 10th rebound of the game just 1:30 into the second half. ... Minnesota continues its five-game homestand Tuesday against the Philadelphia 76ers. ... Dallas returns home to host the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday.