HOUSTON – Reputations sometimes die hard, and so it is for a Timberwolves team that drafted lottery pick after lottery pick during a 14-year playoff drought that finally ends Sunday night in Houston.
But make no mistake about the Wolves even after they chose to go forward with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as their foundation for the future.
“They’re not young,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said.
They’re not, not after Wolves coach/president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau’s summer makeover reunited him with All-Star guard Jimmy Butler and underrated Taj Gibson. They’re not after he also signed veteran free agents Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford, Aaron Brooks and more recently another of his former Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose.
“They’ve got guys who have been through a lot of stuff,” D’Antoni said. “They’re a good team, but I wouldn’t necessarily say a young team. But they’re young enough where they’ll be together 10, 15 years if they want to be.”
Thibodeau crunched all the advanced statistics before he accepted in April 2016 two jobs to lead a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 2004-05.
He traded away promising Zach LaVine, former No. 5 pick Kris Dunn and the seventh pick in last summer’s draft that became Lauri Markkanen. He traded all three to Chicago for 16th pick Justin Patton and Butler, the 30th player drafted once upon a time whom Thibodeau helped nurture from a rookie who never played into an All-Star and feared two-way player.
Then Thibodeau went and signed Butler’s former Bulls teammate Gibson for his toughness and experience and Teague because his teams never miss the playoffs, and still don’t. He signed Crawford and Rose, too, for all they have experienced during a combined 110 playoff games.
He did so by sacrificing some of the Wolves’ perpetual future for the now, all of it predicated on finally being able to deliver a playoff season.
Been there, done that
Once positioned as high as third place in the West, the Wolves played their season down to the final 48 minutes in Wednesday’s season finale against Denver. Then they played five more in overtime before clinching that long-awaited playoff berth — the West’s eighth and final — while also sending the Nuggets home for the summer.
They went to the 11th hour and then some after Butler missed 17 games late in the season because of a partly torn meniscus that needed surgery and because of uninspired losses to such teams as Orlando, Atlanta, Brooklyn, Chicago, Memphis and Phoenix.
“I thought we’d be better, but injuries played a role,” Teague said. “I’m just happy to be in the postseason and that’s going to be great.”
That’s why Teague, Butler and the others are here.
After the Wolves practiced Saturday at Rice University, Thibodeau was asked how many of those moves were made specifically with the playoffs in mind.
“A lot,” Thibodeau said. “Look, when you’re trying to erase 14 years of losing, you have to bring in some people who have won before. That was a big factor in that. These guys have won in the playoffs, and I knew the hole we had to get out of. When you looked at the number, the numbers said we had to do a lot of improving and I think we’ve done that.”
The Wolves went 37-22 this season when Butler played and 10-13 when he didn’t. Without him, they weren’t nearly the same driven, organized team, particularly defensively. Butler played nearly 42 minutes in just his third game back from February knee surgery and at times willed the Wolves to win in their 112-106 overtime play-in victory over Denver on Wednesday.
Afterward, Towns called him “a cyborg from another place, built in the lab” and Gibson has called him “that one piece” around which every other Wolves players seems to fit.
“When you look at what he has done, he has changed everything for us,” Thibodeau said. “He and Taj just brought so much toughness. To be able to get a guy like Jimmy going into his prime — an elite player, a top-10 player in the league, strong on both ends of the ball and mentally tough, physically tough — has changed everything. When you look at where we are when he’s on the floor and where we are when he’s off the floor, that tells you everything you need to know.”
Before the Wolves outlasted the Nuggets, Butler said he’ll do whatever he must for his team to win.
“I don’t care if I don’t have a rhythm; I don’t care if I’m not making shots; I’ll find a way to impact the game,” Butler said. “I don’t care if I’m making shots, if I’m passing the ball, if I’m guarding, but I’ll be there to change the game. I’m just a hooper. I just go out there and play. I’m not scared of the moment. I’m not scared to take that shot. I’m not worried about anything.”
An overtime game later, it still rings true. The question is how much it still will against the Rockets, a team that shot three-pointers and won games (65) like no other this season.
Thibodeau likened Wednesday’s overtime victory to a playoffs series’ Game 7 for its intensity, its physicality and the way officials let players play. He called the season’s final weeks as his team pursued a playoff spot a prelude to the postseason in which Towns and Wiggins, among others, showed growth.
“I thought having those guys around our young guys would speed up the process for those guys,” Thibodeau said, referring to the veterans he acquired. “I think they’ve done that. I look back to where we were when I first got here to where we are, there’s a huge difference.”
Now it is finally the Timberwolves’ time for the playoffs, and the playoffs are the reason why Butler, Teague, Gibson, Crawford and Rose all are here.
“This is why everybody’s here, not just us,” Butler said. “We can’t do it alone. Even the guys who haven’t played in the playoffs before, they know what’s at stake. They know how hard they have to play, how locked in, how they have to know everybody’s tendencies. That’s playoff basketball.”
But the veterans who have been there, should know better: Crawford is 38 and in his 18th NBA season. Brooks is 33, Gibson 32, Teague and Rose 29, Butler 28.
“Thibs is up there, too,” D’Antoni said.
Then he smiled.
“Anybody who makes the playoffs, there’s not a lot of youth in there because you don’t make it if you’re a young team,” D’Antoni said. “You make it if you’re a good team.”