SAN ANTONIO - The Timberwolves’ morning shootaround had ended. Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler sat together, near midcourt, talking intently.
You could see smiles and hear laughter, and then the conversation would turn serious. They looked like they were making plans.
“Every day we spend time just talking over where we are,” Thibodeau said. “I think that’s important. He’s a leader. You want that communication. He’s got to help sell the vision to the team.”
A year after Thibodeau’s introduction to the Wolves’ talented youngsters yielded a paltry 31 victories, his reunion with Butler is supposed to redefine the franchise, but they will have more to discuss Thursday. In Butler’s debut with the Wolves, San Antonio surged away in the final minutes to win 107-99 at AT&T Center.
Butler scored eight points in the first quarter but finished with just 12 points, four rebounds and three assists. He made one big shot down the stretch but couldn’t help the Wolves generate offense when they needed it most.
Thibodeau said he liked using Butler at power forward in his small lineup, but he wound up with a minus-19 rating, tied for worst on the team with Andrew Wiggins.
“I, we, turned the ball over at the end, and you can’t do that,” Butler said. “We put ourselves in a position to win, but in the end they did what they were supposed to do and we didn’t.”
The Wolves looked sloppy, which Butler almost predicted before the game, saying, “I just want to know if we’re going to be the toughest team. If we’re making shots, be the toughest team, or we’re missing shots, be the toughest team. Home or away, be the toughest team. That’s what I want us to become.”
Butler wore a hat featuring the initial “RD,” for country artist Russell Dickerson. Butler hails from Tomball, Texas, a three-hour drive from San Antonio. He loves country music, and there is no place in the NBA that is more country than AT&T Center.
Most NBA venues are crowbarred into a cityscape. AT&T looks, from afar, more like an NFL stadium, as it is surrounded by expanses of ground and landscaped lawns.
Butler’s Timberwolves career is just starting, but his relationship with his coach is as annoyingly familiar as an airborne allergy.
“He’s still getting on my nerves every morning when I wake up,” Butler said. “That love-hate relationship is still there.”
And so the experiment began. Combine a respected coach, the stunning talent of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the savvy of Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson, and the arrival of the league’s rare workmanlike All-Star, and you should win a lot of games. Maybe 50?
But to come close to that number in the current makeup of the Western Conference, you have to have more than talent.
Cohesiveness is the most underrated aspect of quality NBA teams — that, and team defense. Butler has to not only play well; he has to make everyone around him play well. That’s a lot to ask for someone who has yet to experience a Minnesota winter.
“You’re still going to get the same me, no matter where we’re playing, no matter who’s watching,” Butler said. “I’ve lived for this. This is what all summer is for. Preseason is fun, practice is even funner, but the games are where it’s at.
“I’m just ready to play, ready to compete. I love this game, the group of guys we have. We’re ready. I’m not saying it’s going to be the most pure, beautiful basketball you’ve ever seen. As long as we compete, do the right things out there on the floor we’ll be in a great position to win.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked if Butler would make a big difference. “Are you kidding?” he said. “I think you already know the answer to that question. He’s a great player and a great competitor and you know Thibs already loves him. He’s already had him. It’s going to be a great marriage.”