Wolves 119, Thunder 116: Jimmy’s Back

photo via nba.com

What an unusually compelling NBA game for October 27th. After opening the season with a 2-1 record against a tough schedule, the shit hit the fan for the Timberwolves. Jimmy Butler, their new veteran star and natural leader, got sick. An upper respiratory infection took him out of Tuesday’s game versus the Pacers and Wednesday’s at Detroit. While nobody wants Jimmy out of the lineup, the games provided a neat little test for the rest of the roster; especially, the young guys.

They failed it.

They failed it miserably.

Like, that doesn’t really do the failure justice. Following up tough wins against the Jazz and Thunder with a home blowout loss to a Myles Turner-less, rebuilding Indiana team and then following THAT stinker up with another blowout loss at Detroit… the general vibes around the team went from excited to demoralized faster than Tobias Harris could get another three-pointer up against the Wolves’ horrendous transition defense.

This way-up and way-down roller coaster all took place within the span of less than a week!

Friday morning at shootaround, Jimmy Butler announced that — while he wasn’t feeling well and would need to try to keep snot and mucous off of his jersey — he would be returning to the lineup.

That bit of good news set the table for another intriguing test:

Were the Wolves the bad team that showed up against the Pacers and Pistons?

Or, were they actually good — like in the first few games — but just heavily reliant on Jimmy Buckets?

Friday’s 119-116 win over the Thunder provided the answer.

I could write 10 paragraphs here about everything Butler did to help the Wolves beat OKC, but that would essentially amount to a journal of every possession. He guarded Westbrook for much of the game, including the opening and closing minutes. I’ve never felt as comfortable watching the Wolves defend the most electric slasher in the game as I did on Friday night. Russ had a few successful outcomes with Jimmy on him, but not many. As crazy as this sounds, Russ’s (-13) plus-minus is a better indicator of how his night went than his crazy 27/9/8 stat line, approximating his “30 point triple double” average from his MVP season. Westbrook had 8 turnovers.

Butler knows how to play physical at the right times, lay off at the right times, and keep in front of his man. He anticipates where screens are coming from and when, and he can be seen pulling teammates aside during whistles to coach up the next few possessions.

The dude is a leader of men.

When Andrew Wiggins dove on the floor for a loose ball in the first half, that seemed different. I know that it seemed like the exact sort of thing that would not have happened on Tuesday against the Pacers or on Wednesday against the Pistons. Thibs brought the play up twice after the game, without being asked.

Why Jimmy Butler’s presence is required for other Timberwolves to play their hardest is a great question, the answer to which might not bode greatly for the team’s future. It’s possible that Wiggins and Towns (who likewise played MUCH harder vs. OKC) are inspired by Butler’s example, or that they are afraid of facing his wrath. Maybe they just play up to the intensity of the game, whatever it is, rather than set the tone themselves.

Butler didn’t just lead with defense and hustle, even if those are the keys that were most crucial to the win and most absent from a cursory review of the box score. He also had 25 points on just 10 field goal attempts, cleverly and aggressively drawing fouls as the matchup situation he found himself in required. Butler appropriately shifted gears throughout the game, sometimes deferring to others (Teague and Towns had good action of their own going) and other times commanding the ball and making big plays. When the game was on the line, he pressed harder down on the accelerator and built up a lead that would ultimately last to the end.

Along with the 25 points, Butler had 7 assists to just 1 turnover. Turnovers are a little bit of an Achilles Heel for this team, so Jimmy’s ability to control the ball and the offense is a much needed elixir at times.

While Butler’s return and all-around performance was the headlining story, Karl-Anthony Towns needs some space in here as well. KAT had a monster evening, scoring around the rim in all sorts of ways: transition rim-running, pick-and-roll finishing, drop-stepping on Steven Adams, and hitting threes. He finished with 33 points. Along with scoring, Towns was a monster on the boards. Facing the always-relentless Adams (who had nice stretches of his own, to be sure) KAT pulled down 19 rebounds and blocked 4 shots. He was a game-best (+17).

When the Washington Post’s Tim Bontemps ranked Butler and Towns the league’s 9th and 10th best players in his preseason post, this was undoubtedly the sort of performance that he had in mind. Both put it all on the line, prioritizing the things most important and most under their control; for Butler, that was defending Westbrook (and sometimes Melo, for a little bit of a breather (!)) and commanding the offense in tense situations. For Towns, that was forcing missed shots, battling for boards, and scoring like crazy around the hoop.

This game was close — the Wolves only won by 3, after all — and the last few possessions were pretty chaotic.

When Butler rebounded his own missed shot to score an acrobatic layup with just over a minute to go, the Wolves led by 6 and it seemed like they had things pretty well under control. That feeling lasted about 1 game second, because Taj Gibson fouled Melo on a three attempt immediately out of a timeout. Melo hit a pair of free throws and cut the deficit to 4.

On the Wolves next possession, they burned some clock time, but nothing else. Butler finally made a mistake — his 4th Quarter had been near-flawless to that point — by traveling. After a Wolves stop, they called timeout. They just needed to maintain possession and avoid a turnover against what would inevitably be a Thunder trap. Jeff Teague did the worst thing possible in that situation, holding the ball until he was trapped. When he tried to dribble around it by the halfcourt line, he committed an over-the-back violation.

Westbrook scored on a pick-and-roll where Towns didn’t quite get over to contest the layup. The Thunder then fouled Teague, who went to the line with a chance to seal it with two free throws.

He made just one, and the Thunder had a chance to tie.

Westbrook and Melo tried to set up a decent look from three, but Melo’s heave was well contested. It missed, Butler rebounded it, and the game was over.

A few bullets here to wrap this up:

  • Wiggins was less involved in the scoring (14 points) but played pretty decent defense on Paul George throughout the entire game. George was hot in the first half and had a nice stat line, but it was one of those games where the 6’10” swingman was probably going to hit those jumpers against anyone.

  • Shabazz played another poor game. He took 2 bad shots, missed them both badly, and provided nothing else of substance.

  • The second unit offense looked really bad in the first half, when nobody attacked and everything funneled to Jamal Crawford for 37-year old hero ball. It didn’t work well.

  • Both George and Melo were hot shooters in the first half. That the Wolves managed to win when Russ’s two sidekicks shot well is impressive.

  • Taj Gibson scored 16 points, had a couple spin moves that belied his reputation as an offensive role player, and generally was more involved in the offense than most would expect to see.

  • Jeff Teague did a lot of good things, and a lot of bad things. His stat sheet tells the story pretty well, with his 17 points, 10 assists, and 6 turnovers.

That’s about all. This was a great win to rebound from an ugly week. Be happy that your favorite team has Jimmy Butler on it.

He’s good.

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5 Responsesso far.

  1. pyrrol says:

    This game was encouraging, but I’m going to be looking over my shoulder for a while after what we looked like without Butler. I know it’s an unfair comp, but look at how the Spurs are playing without their best player (Leonard). We need to be able to at least hold the fort down and compete, otherwise Jimmy or no we aren’t going to be good enough to make the post season. All I can say is we have a lot of flaws, but so do most teams, and everyone looks rusty right now. Both teams looked particularly sloppy tonight and this has been the norm around the NBA so far.

    I could start with Butler, the difference we knew he’d make after seeing us without him. But I’m more excited about Towns. He didn’t really play much smarter or more informed D (perhaps better analytical folks can break this down better than I) but it’s amazing what some effort can do for a guy of his general talent on the D end. He’s still got a long way to go, but if he plays hard and aggressive and not totally stupid on D like he did tonight things are going to be a lot easier for this team. On offense, Towns showed (once again) just how easy 30+ points are for him (plus 19 boards!). Part of that is talent, but when you have a good scorer as your CENTER… those buckets are easy and reliable. Feeding Towns this much on a nightly basis is a good road to domination.

    Butler came back, not 100% from his illness, and played maybe his first totally ‘as advertised’ game for us. That’s the Jimmy we expect. His offense came to him, he helped make up for Teague’s facilitator defects (Teague’s 10 assists felt pretty inflated and he had 6 TO to get them) and DEFENSE. Westbrook looks a little off with this new roster, actually. But I’ll give Jimmy the benefit of the doubt and say that he was responsible for a bad game from Russ. I know, 27 8 and 9 bad? For him, maybe. He turned it over 8 times, which was crucial. Last season he averaged 10.4 assists per game (a number which seemed to benefit from superstar inflation a bit, but still). So, he wasn’t facilitating as well as usual tonight even with George and Melo to feed. And he just looked a little off. He didn’t have his full killer instinct showing at the end and Butler was a reason.

    Teague played like how I expect him to. Always the homer, Jim Pete had to get in his ‘THIS is what this team needed!’ swipe against Rubio after Teague made a layup. Yeah, our number one concern was getting a few PG layups a game in the offseason. Now off to the finals! Boy 10 Teague assists do not have the same effect as 10 Rubio assists, but that’s a really good number for Teague. He still turned the ball over way too much (8!) and managed to notch 5 fouls somehow… But if he plays like this, with all he other talent we have, he’ll be doing what he needs to do minus the turnovers. Late he had a really boneheaded over and back. Hope that was a rust thing… But good things overall.

    Gibson looked… smooth out there with his scoring touch. He’s good at not trying to do to much but taking advantage of the opportunities he’s given (which should be plenty). Pretty good D, including a nice block.

    Wiggins was meh. (33% from the floor and the free throw line!) The best part of his game was probably his 3 point shooting. His D looked a little better…

    The Bench… how to gage their play!? They were barely out there. To be frank, we may not have won this game if we played our bench a normal amount of minutes. For some bizarre reason Bjelly was only out there 7 minutes (though he hit a Steph-deep three). Crawford played a poor 13 minutes (bench high!). Shabazz did nothing in 11 minutes. And Tyus is just going to have to bring more to the backup role. We actually beat a team in 3 pt % and equaled them on makes. But we don’t win this if we don’t overplay the starters. Perhaps it was wise in this one case. We needed to get on the rails. If this is a trend, we have a major problem. As I said after our first win over OKC, they look somewhat vulnerable. We do too, but we’ve got some young guys to bring up to speed… still. And we’ve not beaten them twice, which is fun. There still remains that lingering shadow of Butler-less Wolves, though. This could be a very Jeckel and Hyde team, even with Butler. Consistency will be a major challenge for us. If we can be somewhat consistent that may be the key to the season. Too much inconsistency throws off your confidence and sheds too many wins you can’t afford to in a West this competitive.

  2. Tom says:

    It was a KG like revival with Butler last night. He did it all and his team became better, because he made them better. How do you loaf, when a sick guy is out working you? I just wanted to bring up the near failure of our coach and his use of his final timeout. With :15 seconds and up by only two, he calls a timeout to run an out of bounds play? If it doesn’t work, they have a five second call or turnover. At about four second count, Teague throws it high to KAT across court and instead of holding it, throws it to back to Teague instead of getting to the line himself. This is a trend with the coach. He just has a way of making you think he is panicking more than his team. Trying to call a Timeout he didn’t have in OKC, and then rushing to use his last one tonight, that makes no sense. If they can’t get the ball in, then use it.

    Jimmy Butler was worth the price of admission and his team looks good climbing on his back. Makes you wonder if he can be hermetically sealed for freshness until the Miami game?

  3. johnybe says:

    It was a really entertaining game, but I’m afraid we still have an issue defending teams that run, cut, and move the ball. Fortunately, OKC’s offense is just a 3 man iso game plus some PNR between Russ and Adams. I expect us to make the playoffs due to the talent we have. I just hope we have to play against OKC, since all the other top teams (GS, Rockets, Spurs, even Clippers these days) have a fluid offense.

  4. Tom says:

    Good point Johnybe on defense against teams that screen away from the ball and create movement. My theory is that KAT still has trouble with Centers that spread the floor and shoot 3’s. He gets caught in no man’s land, trying to plug the driving lane and not getting out to defend the big man. Utah and OKC have great centers but they are low post guys and not outside threats. When Drummond was in, we played better than when they went with Leuer. Indy used Sabonis and Leaf with great success. So maybe we have a good chance against the Clippers, Portland, Utah, OKC, and Denver with more traditional big men.

    Hopefully, the wolves defensive intensity and focus will match Jimmy Butler’s soon. KG didn’t have a lot of defensive help during his playoff runs in Minnesota. Ervin Johnson, Spree, Hassell are really the only one’s that come to mind. I think Taj, Wiggins and KAT could be equal to those guys.

  5. Steve says:

    Nice post, but I disagree with one thing. The fact that Towns and Wiggins need motivating from a veteran teammate shouldn’t alarm anyone that much. People get so focused on their level of talent that they forget how young they really are. They will be better players being around the new veterans, who can often have more impact than the coach. They will learn and grow and fans need to step back more often and not get too bogged down in the immediate, microanalysis that we see too often today. It’s way too early in the season for any kind of pessimism; enjoy the ups and the downs, because they are necessary for this team. I have seen this numerous times in different sports, on both the team and individual level. I guess that makes me middle-aged. I still love the game and this team.

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