MINNEAPOLIS -- Weeks of tense drama in Minnesota have ended with Karl-Anthony Towns as the last -- and only -- man standing.
More than three hours after the start of the team's first practice of the post-Jimmy Butler era, in an otherwise empty gym, Towns was still shooting.
That day, no grand pronouncements that he was in charge were made. But his presence in the gym sent the message: Whatever is next for the Timberwolves starts with him.
In a moment of quiet in the locker room before Wednesday's game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Towns removed his black and red headphones to explain that he welcomed having the weight of a team on his broad shoulders. His charge, he said, is to help the team get back to having fun.
"All those teams I was on that were successful were the ones that everyone had love for each other and had fun," Towns told ESPN. "Things that seem minuscule -- joking around, laughing, conversing, all those things that seem childish -- that is what builds camaraderie."
The locker room aura has become lighter since Butler's locker was cleaned out and replaced with Luol Deng's nameplate. Towns, who is described by teammates as goofy, has gotten back to cracking jokes postgame.
It hasn't been a clean break, though; the crowd booed Thibodeau on Monday night, letting their distaste be known. But by Wednesday night, many of the jeers that had followed the coach all season had faded. One fan even sat behind the Wolves bench in a homemade "I believe in Tom Thibodeau" T-shirt.
Since Butler moved east over the weekend, the Wolves are 2-0, with wins over the Brooklyn Nets and the Pelicans. Towns posted double-doubles in both games, bringing him to eight this season. The team also welcomed three new players: Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless.
Towns gifted his new teammates with winter coats.
"I am just trying to bring a different culture into Minnesota," Towns said.
The Timberwolves pushed their chips in on the lengthy center in September, when they signed him to a five-year, $190 million contract. While Thibodeau has maintained that he needs a roster of leaders and not just one alpha, successful institutions are rarely led by committee. With super-max money and a No. 1 draft pick pedigree come the unspoken charge of being a leader.
"Whenever you sign those types of contracts and you are a part of a team that is building around you, you got to bring it," teammate Anthony Tolliver said of Towns. "He's our best player. People expect it every night -- they expect him to get 30 and 20. That's a lot of pressure, but that's part of it."
To understand Towns is to know this: Publicly, he will almost always be diplomatic. When asked to expound on his declaration of being "just a piece of this team" that isn't more important than anyone else, Towns explained that no player from Michael Jordan to LeBron James can win without some help.
"I think you're going to see a different Karl-Anthony Towns," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. "It kind of frees him up to be who he is and play the way he plays. Obviously, that was kind of a tough situation."
Indeed, the Pelicans saw a different Towns. He scored 20 of his 25 points against New Orleans in the first half and headed into the break with 20 points and 10 rebounds. It was the fifth time in his career that Towns had 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in a game and the first such game for him this season. The team also finished with 22 assists -- its most since 2002.
While Towns' second-half production was muffled by his five personal fouls, he keyed a highlight reel end-to-end sequence by blocking an Anthony Davis layup off the glass. Taking off in the other direction, he fed a cutting Andrew Wiggins for a thunderous dunk that brought Target Center to its feet.
By the end of the night, the crowd was chanting, "Who needs Butler?"