Feed a fever and sweat out an upper respiratory infection.
That apparently was the prescription needed in the Timberwolves’ 119-116 victory over Oklahoma City on Friday night at Target Center. That’s where Jimmy Butler transformed a team adrift without him for two lopsided losses with a 38-minute performance that guided and probably even inspired his teammates.
Butler’s 25-point, seven-assist, five-rebound night provided the rudder to the Wolves’ ship, particularly in a fourth quarter when Butler’s three-point play with 4 minutes, 9 seconds left gave them a one-point lead they never lost again.
“Whatever it takes,” Butler’s longtime teammate, Taj Gibson, said afterward. “He had to sweat it out somehow. That was the perfect way to sweat the cold out.”
Meanwhile, Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns’ 33-point, 19-rebound, four-blocked shot game backed a defense that looked nothing like the one that allowed Indiana 130 points on Tuesday and Detroit 122 on Wednesday.
Only five days after they won in Oklahoma City on Andrew Wiggins’ desperation buzzer-beater, Butler’s return transformed the Wolves. But perhaps not all that much more than Towns’ play defensively two nights after he promised he would find more within himself.
“You just saw a completely different team today,” Gibson said.
Butler defended reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook or Thunder star Carmelo Anthony all night, and down the stretch he scored nine of the Wolves’ points in an 11-3 run that gave them an 118-112 lead with 1:08 left and essentially won the game.
He started it with a cutting layup he turned into a foul and a three-point play and finished it with a layup that gave his team a lead that Russell and the Thunder couldn’t completely overcome, right up through Anthony’s forced three-pointer just before the final buzzer missed.
When asked if his teammates feed off him, Butler said, “I hope so, I hope so, man. That’s part of my role here, to make sure everybody is doing the right thing, playing with energy on both ends of the floor. We’ve got a really talented group of guys, man. Yeah, we had some hiccups today, but when everybody’s swinging that ball and playing team defense and team offense and team everything, hmmm, we’re going to be all right.”
Butler’s offense carried the Wolves down the stretch and his defense helped stop Westbrook twice on isolation plays with the game in doubt.
“No, he just missed,” Butler said. “Don’t get it twisted.”
Butler played more minutes than any other Wolves starter, even while fighting through the infection’s lingering symptoms. At his locker after the game, Butler asked a reporter, “Did you see the look on my face at the end of the game?” when asked how he felt. He also ordered rookie Justin Patton to bring soup to his house after Friday’s game.
When somebody asked Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau if he expected to play Butler 38 minutes, Thibodeau paused, grinned and said, “Jimmy Butler? I did.”
Butler’s presence just might have brought the best out of Towns and Andrew Wiggins, too. The hero Sunday, Wiggins made only five of 15 shots from the field, but he threw himself on the floor in a play that Butler said “changed the game” because of the sheer effort.
Towns, in turn, performed like the two-way player Thibodeau demands and believes he can be.
“He was terrific,” Thibodeau said. “The activity, the shot blocking. He really played hard. He made a lot of great plays for the team. His patience was good. That helped us get into a good rhythm.”
Curt even in victory, Towns called his play a “step in the right direction,” apparently toward quieting people — “Just chitter-chatter,” he said — critical of his defense, or lack thereof.
“Everyone’s talking,” Towns said. “I could hear all the talk in the background and I wanted to silence it as much as possible tonight.”