A Timberwolves season aimed firmly at reaching the playoffs for the first time since Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell wore their jersey careened off the rails with a misstep or two Friday night in Houston.
In a moment, four-time All Star Jimmy Butler collapsed to the court in pain, down and, as was confirmed Saturday, out. The team termed it a right knee meniscus “injury” rather than a meniscus tear, for which Butler will seek a second opinion before choosing a course of treatment.
Coach Tom Thibodeau, Wolves players and Houston stars Chris Paul and James Harden stood over Butler as he lay injured. Harden visited the Wolves’ locker room after the game, too.
“You’re a warrior, man, you’re a beast,” Harden told ESPN what he told Butler. “I don’t know what’s going on with him, but he’ll bounce back better than he was.”
The good news is it’s not a torn anterior cruciate ligament that sidetracked approaching a calendar year or more the careers of former Wolves such as Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Al Jefferson and Corey Brewer.
The wording in a team news release that revealed results of a magnetic resonance imaging exam was basic. It provided little on the type and severity of the injury itself, whether it will require surgery to repair or remove and offered no recovery timetable for an injury expected to sideline Butler for weeks at the very least.
Whether it ends his season — and the Wolves’ as well with regular season’s end — remains unclear.
Every athlete, every injury, every sport is different. Former Wolves forward Chase Budinger missed more than four months after undergoing meniscus surgery in 2012. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson missed three months after surgery on a “bucket handle” tear in 2016.
The Wolves have jockeyed with San Antonio for the West’s third and fourth place — home-court playoff advantage in either case — much of the season. All the while, the sounds of approaching hoofbeats from the chase behind them has grown loud.
As of Saturday, the Wolves trailed the Spurs by percentage points, but they’re also just three games away in the loss column from 10th place and closing-fast Utah.
Entering Saturday’s game against Chicago, the Wolves were 34-22 with him, 2-4 in games without him. They’ve also been 344 points better than their opponents when Butler was on the court this season and they’ve been outscored by 183 when he’s not.
A team that now has only 19 games remaining after Saturday, the Wolves have Oklahoma City, Denver, Portland, New Orleans, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Jazz all pursuing close behind.
Thibodeau coached — and won — on in Chicago when star Derrick Rose sustained successive knee injuries.
“It’s part of it, it’s the NBA, it’s the unfortunate part,” Thibodeau said. “You have to deal with your injuries. Being mentally tough when you face adversity is a big part of winning. You have to find a way to win.”
Now the Wolves must hold it together with young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as well as veterans Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford and others just as their schedule toughens through mid-March.
“Step up for the team,” Wiggins said. “Jimmy’s a big part of the team. Everyone now just needs to step up and fill in his big shoes.”
Wiggins shot 45.7 percent from the field and averaged 21.8 points in the first six games without Butler.
“You guys still got two stars,” said LaVine, sent to Chicago in the Butler trade last summer. “They can win games for you guys. Wig, I think he can step right back into what he was doing last year with Jimmy now being out. We don’t know how long, but you guys are going to be all right.”
• NBA Commissioner Adam Silver raised the topic of playoff reform again over All-Star weekend as the league seeks ways to ensure the best 16 teams make the postseason and the best two meet in the Finals. One idea: A four-team tournament in each conference that includes the seventh- to 10th-place teams playing in for two playoff spots.
“I think we have a pretty good thing going,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “… Adam’s a pretty open guy. If it makes sense for the league, I’m sure they’ll take a look at it. It sounds like the picking up some steams is the play-in. That could be good. I’m all for more teams being in.”
• The Wolves lost their first three games against Houston and its three-point shooting circus this season by 18 points each.
While they try to find ways to slow the Rockets’ barrage, Wolves veteran Jamal Crawford was asked if the rate at which Houston shoots threes is the NBA’s new normal.
“It’ll turn back at some point,” Crawford said. “That’s just how life is. Gold went out for a while, too, and platinum came. Now people are wearing gold again. It goes full cycle, but right now I can see this for the foreseeable future.”
• Something of the forgotten man in last summer’s trade, Chicago rookie Lauri Markkanen has impressed Kris Dunn by making eight three-pointers at New York and coach Fred Hoiberg as well because he’s more than just a shooter.
“He’s got a chance to be an absolute superstar,” said Hoiberg, whose team acquired the No. 7 overall pick in the Jimmy Butler trade. “Some of the things he has shown, he has got a chance to be really, really special.”
WOLVES’ WEEK AHEAD
Monday: 9 p.m. at Sacramento
Thursday: 9:30 p.m. at Portland
Friday: 9:30 p.m. at Utah
Mon. FSN/NBA TV, Thu. TNT, Fri. FSN/ESPN
Player to watch: Ricky Rubio, Jazz
The point guard meets his former team for a third time after Utah lost the first two in the four-game season series that ends in April. But this isn’t October’s and November’s Jazz. With big man Rudy Gobert back, Utah won 11 consecutive games heading into All-Star break .
“It’s the first thing I noticed. I’m glad they put his name up there.”
Former Wolves guard Zach LaVine, traded to Chicago last year, in his first visit back to Target Center on Saturday, on the banner hung this month that remembers the late Flip Saunders.
Twitter: @JerryZgoda, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org