Tom Thibodeau was being vilified by the NBA’s national media for excessive stubbornness in not acceding to Jimmy Butler’s demand to be traded. There were teams suggesting that calls to the Timberwolves to make a reasonable trade offer were not being returned by either Thibodeau, the coach and president of basketball, or GM Scott Layden.
Miami was alleged to be the most aggressive team in pursuing Butler, and then came a report that Heat boss Pat Riley had ended a conversation by aiming the mother of all profanities at Thibodeau.
This was denied by both Riley and Thibodeau, but it still made for fine fodder with the anti-Thibodeau element that exists in the NBA, the national media and is widespread in Minnesota.
Friday, the Wolves played the home opener for their 30th season, and by the time 8 ½ minutes had elapsed in the second quarter, it looked more as if the stubbornness was coming from Riley and the executives of other teams that are trying to pilfer Butler.
The boos were louder than many of us anticipated when Butler was the first player introduced in the Wolves lineup. More surprising was the decision of a couple of thousand voices to continue to boo Butler when he touched the ball on the offensive end.
This happened a handful of times in first two minutes. Then, in the game’s third minute, Butler made a steal as the Wolves were starting to retreat up the court, and immediately threw to Taj Gibson for a layup.
Lip readers caught Butler saying, “Boo this.” There were a few more boos when Butler traveled later in the quarter. The Wolves were leading 32-30 when Butler returned for the second quarter.
And to quote the late, great Dick Enberg: “Oh, my.”
The home team was terrific in that second quarter, and the leader of it all was Jimmy Butler, 6-foot-8, muscled and relentless, 29 until next September, and able to remind all Minnesota hoop-heads what the Wolves were before he arrived here and what they are with him:
They were a losing team for 13 seasons, and a non-playoff team since reaching the Western Conference finals in 2004. And he also validated the boast he apparently made to teammates when he barged into his first practice last week: that the Wolves would not be able to win without him.
He was 4-for-5 from the field in that quarter with three rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot, and he imposed his strength and will all over the defensive end. When he left with four minutes left in the quarter, the Wolves led 58-45 and you were justified in saying, “Well, Jimmy won this one.”
And then he had to win it again in the fourth, when Cavs guards Collin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson, and another guy named Cedi Osman, started making everything and it was 123-117 with 3 minutes left.
Again, Cleveland was heading for the offensive end and Butler tipped the ball away from Kevin Love, leading to another Gibson basket. The Wolves hung on from there for a 131-123 victory.
It wasn’t all Jimmy — but it was more than enough to say Jimmy Butler offers a game and an on-court attitude that demands stubbornness in trade negotiations.
The boisterous boos turned to a few hundred people chanting “MVP, MVP” before the game had ended. Asked about that, Butler said:
“I knew as soon as I made an effort play it was going to turn into cheers. Boos, cheers, silence … I’ve got a job to do.
“I’m always going to play hard. That’s my talent. I’m not the best shooter, I’m not the best ballhandler, but just play hard. I think if you play hard, you can cover up a lot.”
Butler said he “loved playing” with all his teammates and made a point of saying: “I’m yelling shoot it whenever Tyus [Jones] has the ball … I’m out there with my guys, I’m always telling them to shoot.”
There was a visible example of his support for Jones, the local hero. When Tyus made a three-pointer 4 ½ minutes into the fourth quarter, Butler pointed toward him with a raised arm … almost a “my man” gesture.
Butler played 36 minutes, went 10-for-12 from the field, 12-for-12 from the line, scoring 33 points with seven rebounds and four steals. He also was a minus-3 for the night in official stats. Which confirms that plus-minus lies in the NBA.
Stay stubborn, Thibs.