Jimmy Butler’s return to the Timberwolves Friday night after 17 games away injured brought back more than their four-time All-Star and best two-way player.
It provided energy and hope to a team that began to lack both the longer it played without him.
The Wolves went 8-9 while Butler healed a partly torn knee meniscus injured in February. Coach Tom Thibodeau praised his players before Friday’s 113-96 victory over the Lakers in Los Angeles for how “they fought like crazy” to keep themselves positioned, however precariously, for the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 14 years.
Now the question is whether his presence for these final three games will be enough, to get the Wolves there and without a swift sweep by either Houston or Golden State.
There was no doubt Butler’s teammates started to show the burden borne during Butler’s absence, both because of their increased workload without him and the loss of Butler’s sheer will.
Wolves veteran forward Taj Gibson admitted as much after Butler returned Friday doing Butler things like he was never gone.
“When you miss a good amount of time, you have a lot of energy,” Gibson said. “We’re all running on fumes, and it was good to have fresh life, fresh energy out there. Jimmy brought it, and we just fed off it.”
Butler brought it from start to finish, stealing the ball twice in the game’s first minute that staked the Wolves to a quick 5-0 lead. Not long after, he provided a three-point play and an alley-oop dunk during a determined second-half comeback during which the Wolves mostly just played harder and tougher than they had without Butler.
Butler played 22½ minutes mostly in 5½-minute segments, scored 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting, and had two rebounds, an assist and four steals in a performance that did what Thibodeau perhaps thought couldn’t be done any more in their long relationship.
Just pay his 4-for-8 shooting from the free-throw line no mind.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how well he played,” Thibodeau said. “Usually when a guy is out that amount of time, there’s going to be some rust. But I thought his timing was terrific. His free-throw shooting was not typical of who he is, but that was to be expected. Overall, he was champing at the bit and that’s a good sign also.”
A good sign, too, that Butler’s tenacity and spirit became the Timberwolves’ own, particularly in that second half, when they outscored 62-38 an undermanned Lakers team bound for another draft lottery.
“It felt good,” Gibson said. “It feels like Jimmy is that one piece that helps everybody be where they’re supposed to be. Defensively, it helps us a lot. It just feels good to get back to the old ways.”
The Wolves lost at Denver without Butler Thursday after they couldn’t grasp the rebound or loose ball they needed after Karl-Anthony Towns fouled out late in the game. Gibson called the Wolves’ toughened performance Friday half due to Butler’s return.
“The other 50 percent, you have to go out there and put your big-boy pants on,” Gibson said. “Go out there and play. Everybody’s capable of doing that. He gave us a little push.”
The Wolves’ magic number to assure at least the West’s eighth and final playoff spot remained at two Saturday after the Nuggets eliminated the Los Angeles Clippers from contention. Any combination of Wolves victories and Denver losses reaching two will clinch. Each team has two games left, including their Wednesday season finale at Target Center.
This time, Butler is back, doing what he always does.
“I just play hard,” Butler said. “When you play hard, just good things happen to happen. Hopefully, everybody takes note of that and realizes how important these games are down the stretch. Now we need to go get two more.”
• Wolves All-Star and 2016 Olympic gold medalist Jimmy Butler is one of 35 players chosen for a U.S. men’s national team pool from which 12-man teams will be chosen for the 2019 World Cup in China and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Absent from the group is Karl-Anthony Towns.
New Jersey born and raised, he’s not eligible for U.S. team because he played for the Dominican Republic — his mother’s homeland — national team when he was 16. He said earlier this season he has no regret about doing so and doesn’t foresee himself choosing to play for U.S. teams.
• While discussing this season’s Sixth Man of the Year race, Denver coach Michael Malone admitted the award likely will go to a pure scorer, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Lou Williams, once again.
“A lot of times that Sixth Man is just a guy who’s a prolific scorer, Jamal Crawford obviously,” Malone said. “That award probably will be named after Jamal at some point.”
Malone was a Knicks assistant when the Wolves’ Crawford played in New York early in his career. “He’s just being nice,” said Crawford, a three-time Sixth Man winner.
• The NBA regular season doesn’t end until Wednesday, so there’s still time for somebody to say “it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
That cliché rubs Malone and Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau wrong.
They’re both coaching disciples of Jeff Van Gundy, who hates that phrase.
“When people would say that, he’d say, ‘Have you ever watched a marathon?’ The guys who win the marathon are sprinting the whole time,” Malone said. “The Kenyans are running sub-5-minute miles for all 26 miles.”
WOLVES’ WEEK AHEAD
Monday: 7 p.m. vs. Memphis
Wednesday: 7 p.m. vs. Denver
Mon. FSN+, Wed. FSN
Player to watch: Jimmy Butler, Wolves
OK, we’re going against convention by not picking an opponent, but you haven’t seen him play (before Friday) since Feb. 23. So get reacquainted: Jimmy, Wolves Nation. Wolves Nation, Jimmy.
“I be on the ESPN app. I can't afford League Pass. I just stay in my lane.”
Butler, when asked if he’s following every night of the frantic playoff race on the NBA’s subscription TV package