If Jimmy Butler, cape in hand, was Batman (or, perhaps, Backman) Monday night at Target Center, Jamal Crawford was Robin.
So it was only fitting after the Wolves had rallied from 10 down with less than eight minutes left to beat Portland 108-107, the two met at center court for a hug and a little conversation. Neither shared the contents of that confab. Fitting, perhaps, considering their play did all the talking.
No question what happened down the stretch of that game — when Butler and Crawford combined to score all of the Wolves points in a 21-10 finish to the game — spoke volumes.
For Butler, it is no surprise, even considering his sore lower back. After starting the season making a point of trying to get everyone involved, Butler has turned up the scoring. Monday was his fourth game with 30 or more points in nine December games. Butler is averaging 25.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.1 steals this month.
But for Crawford? Monday might have been a watershed.
The 37-year-old shooting guard has been the NBA’s sixth man of the year three times, most recently in the 2015-16 season. He was brought to Minnesota to be the instant offense off the bench he has been for much of his career.
But, through the first 30 games, things didn’t go, perhaps, exactly as planned. Crawford’s minutes and production were down. He recently talked about the difficulty he was having adjusting to his role, learning to be productive with fewer minutes, while stressing he was not trying to rock coach Tom Thibodeau’s boat.
He reiterated that Monday night — after he had made 10 of 16 shots and scored a season-high 23 points, scoring every bench point the Wolves registered against Portland — when asked if his play (in 23 minutes) suggested those minutes should rise.
“I just play to win,” he said. “I really just want to help, however I can. That’s what I came, to help as much as I could. Tonight doesn’t justify anything. I just want to win.”
Still, much of Crawford’s career has included coming off the bench at the start of games but playing on the court at crunch time.
Always a streaky shooter, Crawford was vintage Monday. After going 3-for-6 for seven points in 11-plus minutes in the first three quarters, he really heated up in the fourth quarter, hitting seven of 10 shots, a three-pointer and scoring 16 points.
On the floor to start the fourth with a lineup of four reserves and center Karl-Anthony Towns, Crawford scored eight of the Wolves’ first 11 points as Minnesota kept within striking distance of the Blazers. With 7:31 left, Thibodeau put starters Jeff Teague and Butler back in the game. Moments later Taj Gibson went in. But, seeing Crawford was in a rhythm, Thibodeau left Andrew Wiggins on the bench, going with a lineup that moved Butler from shooting guard to small forward.
Down 10 with 7:02 left, Butler and Crawford got going.
Crawford hit a three-pointer and a 21-footer. At mid-quarter Crawford’s steal led to Butler’s dunk, energizing the crowd.
“I played with him before,” Teague said. He and Crawford were teammates in Atlanta when Crawford won his first sixth man of the year award. “I’ve seen him do things like this multiple times. I trust him at the end of the game.”
Might Thibodeau do the same, at least in the short term? With Wiggins in something of a funk this month — he’s shooting 37.2 percent overall, 24.4 percent on three-pointers and averaging 15.2 points — might Crawford get more late-game run?
“I’ve done it for a long time,” Crawford said. “I can be a spark to get guys back on track. But I don’t have to be the guy. I don’t like attention anyway. I’m just here to help.”