Jimmy Butler is close.
For the first time since Feb. 25 knee surgery, the Wolves’ All-Star guard took full part in a practice on Tuesday. This came a day after getting in a strong workout with a collection of the G League Iowa Wolves on Monday.
He might not return Thursday in Denver. But he will be back for the team’s stretch run, about five weeks since meniscus surgery on the right knee. And here is what he has taken from watching the team from the sidelines during that time:
“We just gotta get tougher,” Butler said. “We gotta play like some dogs with a sense of urgency. Teams just do whatever they want against us. I don’t like it.
“Ain’t no coach in the world that can make somebody play hard. Ain’t no coach in the world that can make anybody want it. Right now, in the position we are … we gotta realize that as a whole, we got to go out there and be the tougher team every single night, every single possession.”
Butler was sending a clear signal to the Wolves, who are fighting to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2004 with four regular season games remaining. Very soon Butler will be in a position to help the Wolves — who went 8-8 while he recovered — do just that.
Butler was cleared for contact Friday, and took part in the team’s shootaround in Dallas that day. Since then he has slowly ramped up the workload until, Tuesday, he was cleared for a full practice.
That said, neither Butler nor Thibodeau said when exactly Butler would return.
“He’s the athlete, he knows,” Thibodeau said. “When he’s ready to go, he’ll go. Each time you go to the next phase, you want to see how he responds the day after.”
But the knee apparently held up well. “I’m this close to returning to the floor and playing the game I love, being out there with the soldiers that go through it every day in practice,” Butler said. “That’s what I miss, more than anything, just being out there competing with those guys.”
That said, Butler made a point of saying the team needed to be more competitive over their final four games of the regular season as the jockeying continues over playoff position.
“Maybe,” he said, when asked if playing hard was an issue for the team. “I just think the competing aspect of it, man, just because you’re down don’t mean you’re out, ever. … We have to have that ‘will’ to want to guard. To tell you the truth, we haven’t done it all year. We’ve had stretches where it’s looked solid, then you go back to what you’ve been seeing. All in all, we’ve just got to want to play defense. Thibs, he don’t got too much to do with that.”
The Wolves are 26th in the league in defensive rating at 108.9. In their past 15 games that number is 111.2. The team is coming off a disappointing 121-97 loss to Utah at Target Center Sunday.
Butler said he hadn’t discussed the possibility of a minutes limit when he returns. He said he just wants to play and let his dictate his playing time. He knows there will be some rust and conditioning issues, but: “I just guarantee that, when I got out there, I’m going to play hard,” he said. “Probably have five fouls in however many minutes that I play. But I just want to win.”
Butler said the effort is the key for the team.
“I just think if we play hard, it covers up for a lot,” Butler said. “Defense is a lot of playing hard, effort and the will to want to do something. … Good things happen when you play hard. I think sometimes we lose focus on how hard you do have to play because we’re so talented. Right now everyone is talented, and these next couple games we have, everybody’s talented and everyone’s going to play hard. And we need to be the same way.”
So look for Butler’s imminent return. “Still gotta talk with the docs,” he said. “I look good. I feel good. I still think I’m a decent talent. I can go out and score a couple baskets. I can still get some stops.’’