LOS ANGELES – One night after they lost a game without him that they couldn’t afford to lose, the Timberwolves welcomed four-time All Star Jimmy Butler back after 17 games away injured and toughened out a 113-96 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers they absolutely had to have.
You make the call.
Butler hadn’t played a game since he went down clutching his knee during a Feb. 23 game at Houston and on Friday he returned, giving the Wolves what he had by playing 22 ½ minutes, mostly in 5 ½-minute bursts.
All he had – defense, rebounding, 18 points scored on 7-for-10 shooting and four steals, too – helped guide a second-half turnabout.
“Winded a little bit, missed some free throws,” Butler said. “Other than that, I felt pretty solid.”
Outscored 32-21 in the second quarter and trailing by seven points at halftime, the Wolves changed course with a 29-15 third quarter that turned the game. Their 16-3 run to start the fourth quarter pushed their lead by as many as 21 points.
They did so mostly by simply playing harder and tougher after they had lost Thursday at Denver. They couldn’t get the rebound or loose ball they needed after young star Karl-Anthony Towns fouled out in the final two minutes.
By winning, the Wolves moved alone into eighth place for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, a mere half-game behind New Orleans, San Antonio and Oklahoma City and a half game ahead of Denver. They have two games remaining, at home Monday against Memphis and Wednesday in a game against the Nuggets that could mean so much.
Their magic number to clinch their first playoff spot since 2004 is now two: Any combination of Wolves’ victories or Denver’s losses adding up to two will do.
Afterward Friday, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau called it “playing with a resolve” and partly credited Butler’s return.
“I thought Jimmy set the tone for that,” Thibodeau said.
The Wolves outscored the Lakers 62-44 in the paint and pushed back against a team that again is headed for the NBA draft lottery but beat San Antonio at home on Wednesday in overtime. They committed just five turnovers to the Lakers’ 20, from which they scored 30 points.
“We just played harder,” Wolves veteran forward Taj Gibson said. “We just understood what was at stake. Guys just kept coaching. Guys just kept talking from the bench. Everybody was cheering. That was playoff-style basketball, understanding what it takes to win games. We just pushed through.”
Thibodeau called it a “team win” and praised everybody and everything from point guard Jeff Teague’s performance all night and Karl-Anthony Towns’ productive second half after he shook off early foul trouble to Andrew Wiggins’ defense, which he termed “fantastic,” even though Wiggins shot 7-for-22 from the field.
“The plays in the third quarter -- in traffic, playing through contact -- those are the things you need to do to win,” Thibodeau said. “There’s a physicality to this. If you play soft, the results are not going to be good. You have to play with a great intensity, with a physicality and an intelligence.”
Butler started Friday’s game like he had never away, stealing the ball twice in the game’s opening minute and triggering an early 5-0 lead on a night when Lakers center Brook Lopez scored his team’s first 15 points.
“I gamble a lot on defense,” Butler said dryly. “I just got lucky to get two early on.”
Wiggins doesn’t consider it luck.
“You never lose it,” Wiggins said. “He looked good. He got to his spots. He scored when he wanted to score. He was just playing his game out there.”
Butler put some fourth-quarter punctuation on the Wolves’ 45th victory this season with a cutting layup and three-point play that gave them a 12-point lead early in the quarter and slamming down Tyus Jones’ alley-oop pass not long after.
“I just play hard,” Butler said. At the end of the day 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 go get two more.”