Frustration boiled over for the Timberwolves on Friday night in Utah.
Karl-Anthony Towns was ejected after arguing with an official. Jeff Teague was ejected for body checking Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio.
No doubt there’s a lot of pressure on the Wolves, who lost a second consecutive game to a team in playoff contention. If the Wolves are going to slide out of the playoffs while Jimmy Butler is recovering from knee surgery, the Jazz might be one of the teams to benefit.
The Wolves are now 2-2 in the first four games they played in this stretch, taking care of cellar-dwelling opponents Chicago and Sacramento but losing to Portland and Utah.
The Wolves have had to change without Butler in the lineup. Upon his injury, he led the team in usage rate, a statistic that tracks how often a team’s offensive possessions end in a shot, free-throw attempt or a turnover when a given player is on the floor.
Butler has shot 39 more times in clutch situations (when a game is within five points with five minutes or less remaining) than the next player on the roster, Andrew Wiggins, even while missing 10 games this season.
Butler is second only to Houston’s James Harden (12.1 to 11.36) in a metric ESPN created that’s called Real Plus-Minus wins, which is an advanced statistic that tries to capture how many wins each player contributed to his team.
Those 10 games provide enough of a snap shot for how the Wolves have fared without him.
The numbers that jump out are the Wolves’ offensive and defensive rating with Butler on the floor and without him. Defensive and offensive rating track how many points per 100 possessions (or roughly the average length of an NBA game) a team allows or scores when a player is on the floor. The Wolves’ offensive rating when Butler is on the floor is 113.1. Their defensive rating is 105.3, for a net rating of plus 7.8 points per game, the highest net rating on the Wolves.
However, when Butler isn’t on the floor, the Wolves’ offensive rating is 107.7, their defensive rating is an eye-popping 113.7 for a net rating of negative 6.0.
To put the defensive ratings in perspective, with Butler on the floor the Wolves would have the 11th-best defensive rating. Without him they would have the worst defensive rating in the league, almost three points worse than the worst team in the league, the Suns (110.4).
It comes as no surprise considering Butler is regarded as a top defensive player in the league.
“Jimmy always guards the best perimeter player,” Jamal Crawford said. “We have to do that collectively as well. ‘Wigs’ is up for the challenge to guard the best perimeter player, and he takes pride in doing it as well. Everything we do has to be even more so together than before.”
Baked into those numbers are two games the Wolves lost by a combined 44 points to Detroit and Indiana in October. What’s important is how the Wolves are playing in this moment without Butler. In their past four games, their offensive rating is 111.1 and their defensive rating 104.1. If you take out the easy wins against Chicago and Sacramento, the numbers shift to 104.1 offensive, 109.4 defensive.
Teague has taken on a greater offensive role — he leads the Wolves in usage rate over the past four games with Wiggins second. But the defense is the biggest concern.
Unfortunately for the Wolves, the schedule isn’t doing them any favors. Coming up are games against five consecutive playoff-bound teams, including Golden State and Houston, which are hard enough to beat when Butler is healthy.
“Our margin of error is not as great,” coach Tom Thibodeau said.
In fact, it’s almost nonexistent.