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.
— KSTPSports (@KSTPSports) October 27, 2017
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.