In a game that went back and forth and down to the wire, Jimmy Butler stepped up when it mattered most. The team’s best player and strongest leader, “Jimmy Buckets” scored 20 of the Wolves’ final 24 points and 33 overall to seal the big win over the LA Clippers. On a night when his teammates struggled to knock down open shots, Butler appropriately shifted to a higher gear. He demanded the ball and did what he had to do. This is why Thibs traded for him, and this is why Wolves fans should be excited to have Jimmy on their side.
There isn’t anything technically wrong with that synopsis of Sunday evening’s game at Target Center. The Wolves did, in fact, beat the Clippers. The final score was 112-106. Jimmy Butler did score 20 of the last 24 and 33 in total. He did take over down the stretch. His teammates (Andrew Wiggins in particular) shot the ball poorly, missing many open three-point shots.
What that summary omits, however, is at least as important as what it includes:
The Clippers were missing all of their good players aside from DeAndre Jordan and the Wolves were heavily favored to win the game.
Injury-ravaged Clippers report today pic.twitter.com/vH76S9cgPn
— Jerry Zgoda (@JerryZgoda) December 3, 2017
The Clips started someone named Jamil Wilson, who had 3 career games under his belt. They started someone else named C.J. Williams who had 10. These are prime “Who he play for?” candidates subbing in for the likes of Patrick Beverley and Blake Griffin. Wes Johnson also started the game. Wolves fans know who he is.
That it took late-game heroics from Butler says more about what went wrong for the Wolves than what went right.
In the first half, while the Wolves could’ve had a bigger lead than 60-55, some of the close margin can be attributed to Austin Rivers shooting better than he normally would. Rivers had 30 points in the game, 20 coming in the first two quarters, and if he always made 7-10 from downtown, his reputation would be a lot different than what it is. He deserves credit for playing well in this game.
In the second half, there was the third quarter when the Wolves offense fell apart — they scored just 18 points and spent many possessions dribbling away the shot clock before making any sort of meaningful movements. This is Jeff Teague, but this is also Jimmy Butler. While each player can hang his hat on his ultimate stat line (Butler had 8 rebounds and 4 assists to go along with the 33 points, and was +12; Teague had 10 assists, 0 turnovers, and was +9) they wasted a clear chance to blow away an overmatched opponent on a night they would be traveling to Memphis to face the Grizzlies on Monday.
Teague likes to dribble the ball while planning his next move. So does Butler. Together, they tend to waste a lot of the shot clock. When this happens, and when other guys like Wiggins are missing jumpers (Wig was 0-5 from three), the entire offense falls apart and it looks completely miserable to the viewers. It would be wrong to go overboard with the criticisms — the starting five has an outstanding offensive rating of 110.0, and the Teague-Butler pairing is even better at 111.6 in 583 minutes. But when things stall like they did in the third quarter of the Clips game, it really looks bad and it leaves some people (including yours truly) wondering whether Thibs should try to stagger Tyus Jones in with the starters more often, if nothing else to have one less player on the floor who holds the ball (or dribbles it in one place) and stops ball movement. For what it’s worth, the five-man lineup that subs Tyus in for Teague has a 115.6 offensive rating, and an almost equally impressive 99.1 D-rating. Those 90 minutes are skewed some via poor opposition, but it’s a little bit of a sample that could call for further experimentation.
It’s easier for me and you to say this than Thibs, however. A huge part of his job is to command the respect of his players, and benching the former All-Star veteran earning $19 Million is a good way to jeopardize that effort. He needs his key guys to remain committed and he won’t shuffle his core lineup lightly.
The fourth quarter was a story of bad defense. The offense was fine — Jimmy took care of that — but the D was terrible for most of the way home. By my count, they had 7 breakdowns that led to Clippers layups or dunks. Here’s a quick photo tour of each:
Breakdown 1: Find Your Man in Transition
On this breakdown, both Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns were up near Montrezl Harrell as Lou Williams pushed the ball in transition. Sam Dekker was roaming the baseline behind them. The lack of identification and communication allowed Williams to easily pass to Dekker for the layup.
Breakdown 2: Don’t Let Your Man Cross Your Face
On this breakdown, Tyus Jones defends Jawun Evans as he passes to Williams on the wing. Tyus commits a cardinal sin of defense, allowing Evans to cut in front of him, and toward the rim. That basic type of error might be corrected in the NBA game with good interior help defense. But in this case, the weakside help defender is Jamal Crawford. So it led to an easy two points.
Breakdown 3: The Rim is More Important than the 3-Point Line
On this breakdown, Gorgui showed hard on Williams after his man — Harrell — set a pick and rolled toward the rim. Tyus initially helped over to bump Harrell, before leaving the big man alone by the rim so that he could get back to his own guy Evans, who was spotted up at the three-point line. Frankly, I don’t know what Thibs wants in this situation. It might’ve been on Crawford to help over since he was a skip pass away, unlike both Towns and Tyus who were guarding the guys next to Williams. But it looked really bad when Tyus left Harrell alone by the hoop to catch the pass and easily dunk it home. After this play, Thibs called timeout and subbed in Taj and Teague for Gorgui and Tyus.
Breakdown 4: Get Back on Defense
On this breakdown, Harrell ran harder than Towns (and everyone else) in transition. He caught this lob pass and scored the oop layup for an easy 2 points.
Breakdown 5: Jimmy & Taj Aren’t Perfect Themselves
On this breakdown, Butler wasn’t quite ready for Williams to drive baseline and Taj was up higher than he needed to be when defending DeAndre Jordan, a non-shooter. Williams scored a half-contested layup.
Breakdown 6: DeAndre Jordan Can Dunk and You Need to Be Aware of That
On this breakdown, Taj has to leave Jordan to help out on the driving Williams. Towns treats the situation as if Williams is going to pull up for a jumper and he will just wait to see if the rebound comes his way. Williams recognized the situation and instead tossed a lob to DAJ, who flushed it home for two points. Towns should’ve fought around Jordan when Gibson left him there.
Breakdown 7: One More Time: DeAndre Jordan Can Dunk and You Need to Be Aware of That
On this breakdown, Taj switched onto Williams after Jordan set the screen and rolled to the hoop. Towns initially did what he was supposed to do, helping out onto Jordan rolling toward the rim. For whatever reason, he changed his mind and raced away from DAJ out to Jamil Wilson in the corner. With Jordan alone next to the hoop, Williams once again dished to his big man who once again dunked it.
In the 4th Quarter and the entire game, the Clips also hit threes — they were 15-34 (44.1%) from downtown in the game — but allowing 7 easy baskets to a team devoid of good playmaking seemed like the worst Timberwolves sin of many in this game.
The talking points after the game were pretty consistent: a win is a win, they need to keep working and move onto the next one.
In the standings, that is certainly true: the Wolves improve to 14-10 after this one and play against another conference rival in Memphis tomorrow night. But if they don’t tighten up these defensive rotations, they’ll get blown off the floor against normal, healthy, NBA competition. That they nearly lost to this version of the Clippers will hopefully serve as a warning that more will be needed tomorrow night. Judging by Butler’s post-game statements to the Target Center crowd, it sounds like he understands what’s up:
Butler on the court after the game: "Sadly as it is, we just outscored them once again. Our defense wasn't where it's supposed to be. A win is a win, but I want to play some defense."
— jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) December 4, 2017