A lot is yet to be decided. All the Timberwolves said Saturday is that Jimmy Butler, who fell to the floor clutching his right knee in the third quarter of Friday’s loss in Houston, had an MRI that showed a meniscal injury.
It was intentionally vague. Coach Tom Thibodeau said Butler will get a second opinion. Time will be spent considering treatment options. Until then, nobody is saying anything else about the injury, though presumably it involves a tear of the cartilage.
But this much is sure: The Wolves, in the middle of a stretch run in a hypercompetitive Western Conference where nobody other than Golden State and Houston has created any kind of separation, will have to go forward without Butler for a while. It remains unknown if it will be for the rest of this season.
A report by Yahoo said, according to league sources, that Butler was expected to undergo surgery soon and could return in as soon as four weeks. The Wolves indicated that no decision has been made.
“The good news is it’s not an ACL,” Thibodeau said, referring to the fear that Butler had torn a ligament. “That was the big concern. That was a positive. So we’ll go from there.”
There wasn’t a lot of time to get things done Saturday. Mechanical issues prevented the Wolves from chartering home after Friday’s game; they arrived Saturday, instead. And then Butler had to have the MRI, and had to have it read. There has barely been time for Butler — who, on crutches, was at Target Center for the Wolves’ game against Chicago, his old team — to gather his breath, let alone make a key decision.
At first blush, this situation seems similar to the decision faced by former Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in 2016, when he suffered a meniscus tear. At the time he had to choose between two surgical paths.
The first, a trim or removal of the meniscus, would mean a return date set in weeks, not months. It would allow at least the possibility of a return this season. But there could be ramifications down the road for Butler. The other path is a repair of the cartilage, which would mean a recovery time of months. Peterson, who chose this path, was out for almost three months.
More should be known about Butler’s plan of action on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Wolves have to figure out a way to replace Butler’s leadership, his scoring, his minutes, his defense.
“Everybody here is a pro,” forward Taj Gibson said. “And they’re capable of playing at a high level. I think we’ll be fine. It comes down to executing and playing hard. It’s going to be exciting and it’s going to be fun.”
And it might be hard.
As Thibodeau has said over and over this season, Butler’s impact on the team goes far beyond just the numbers, his leadership changing the direction of a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004.
But the numbers alone will be difficult to replace. Butler leads the Wolves in scoring (22.2), minutes (a league-high 37.1), and steals (1.9). He is second on the team in assists (5.0) and third in rebounding (5.4).
He has been the man with the ball in his hands at crunch time.
Now others will have to step up, on a team with a rather thin bench to begin with.
It likely starts with Andrew Wiggins. He has shown the ability to step into the void at times this season. He scored 40 points in a victory over the Clippers in Los Angeles and had 29 in a win vs. Toronto during a four-game stretch in January when Butler was resting his sore right knee. He averaged 25.7 points and shot 50 percent during that four-game stretch. But he also managed just 10 points against Golden State in that stretch.
Consistency will be the key.
“He does so many things for our team,” Thibodeau said of Butler. “We’re not going to replace him individually. But, collectively, we can, if we defend as a team, if we rebound as a team, if we take care of the ball as a team, if we share the ball as a team, if we play smart. All those things we can do as a team.”
Twice the Wolves have had to play without Butler this season. He missed two games early in the season, when he was sick. The result: back-to-back blowouts at the hands of Indiana and Detroit.
“He means everything,” guard Jamal Crawford said. “A lot of the things he brings to the team you can’t put on a stats sheet. He brings so much off the court, to make sure we’re moving in the right direction as a leader, a player and a person.”
When Butler missed four games in January, the Wolves went 2-2, beating the Clippers and Raptors and losing at Portland and Golden State.
Like in January, at least for now, Nemanja Bjelica will slide into the starting lineup, moving Wiggins to shooting guard.
But that will put more pressure on an already thin bench.
And the stretch run promises to be a challenge.
Entering Saturday’s game with the Bulls at Target Center, the Wolves were in a virtual tie with San Antonio for third in the conference. But, in an extremely tight race for playoff position in the West, the Wolves were only two games ahead of No. 8 New Orleans and three ahead of the No. 9 Clippers.
Add to that a schedule that has the Wolves facing teams currently in playoff position in nine of their final 19 games. That stretch includes two games against Denver, and games against Portland, Boston, Golden State, Washington, San Antonio and Houston.
Meanwhile, Butler will have to come to terms with his injury, as will the team. Gibson, a longtime teammate of Butler, said Butler was in such good spirits on the flight home that an observer would never have thought he was injured. Gibson said the most important thing was Butler’s health, both now and long-term.
“I want him to be 110 percent ready,” Gibson said. “Over the years I’ve seen guys rush back. And those kinds of things hurt a player’s career. … I want him to be safe and do it the right way.”
Butler’s agent, Bernie Lee, said in a statement that Butler had a goal of “finishing what he has started here in Minnesota this year.”
Thibodeau called it a challenge to overcome.
“It’s part of the league, you have injuries,” Thibodeau said. “And then you have to circle the wagons, you have to get ready to go. I think everyone’s disappointed for Jimmy. But he’ll gather himself, and he’ll work his way through it.”
So will the team.
“There is disappointment there,” Thibodeau said. “But they also understand what we have at stake. And so we have to be ready to go.”