Thursday’s opponent, the Boston Celtics, already have traveled the road onto which the Timberwolves veered when four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler went down clutching his knee in Houston last month.
The Celtics lost their own All-Star, max-contract signee Gordon Hayward, after he sustained a gruesome fractured ankle on opening night in October.
Hayward is out for the season. In his absence, the Celtics didn’t miss a measure from the beginning. They won 16 consecutive games after an 0-2 start and now stand second only to Toronto in the Eastern Conference. They’ve done so with a team anchored by veterans Al Horford and Kyrie Irving but powered in good part by its youth.
Sidelined perhaps only for weeks, Butler is aiming for a return by the playoffs while his team has trimmed its playing rotation to eight players. They’ve done so hoping to, in the words of veteran Jamal Crawford, “hold down the fort” through a stretch of the schedule that includes the Celtics, Golden State, Washington, San Antonio and Houston the next 11 days and onward until Butler can return.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens calls the two players’ recovery time and their injury severity “a little different” than Butler’s, but acknowledged both teams in their own way have traveled a similar road.
“Jimmy is a really good two-way player, Gordon is a really good two-way player,” Stevens said after the Celtics practiced Wednesday at Target Center. “Those versatile guys are hard to lose. They’ve got other really good players who have helped and will continue to help stem the tide until he gets back. When he gets back, they’ll all be a little bit better because of that. That’s a positive.”
Stevens knows because he has seen the growth of young Celtics such as rookie Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart — ages 19-24, with Irving the grizzled vet at age 25 — on a team that’s built on the wing for the new-age game and has the league’s top-rated defense as proof.
A participant in the past three NBA Finals with Cleveland, Irving calls “pretty unique” a Celtics team that at 45-20 owns the league’s fourth-best record despite its youth. He attributes it partly to Hayward’s traumatic injury.
“Obviously, losing one of our primary pieces in Gordon, I don’t think anyone knew what the landscape was going to look like going forward,” Irving said. “It was our job to fill that void as best we can. It afforded a lot of opportunity for our young guys to play significant minutes as well as be in roles that I don’t think they necessarily envisioned going into the season.
“Gordon is a huge piece. We lose him, and all hell broke loose a little bit. ‘What are they going to look like?’
‘‘A lot of guys took that personal and they want to come out and prove something. Not only to the rest of the league, but to themselves, that they’re capable of doing it. It only positions us even greater for the future.”
For all the Celtics’ success so far, the Wolves have done something Boston hasn’t, something they’ll be challenged to maintain Thursday at Target Center: With or without Butler, they haven’t lost more than two games consecutively all year — the Celtics have lost four games once and three games another time — but are in danger of reaching that (and more) with the forthcoming stretch.
Only two other teams have not lost more than consecutive games this season: Toronto and Golden State.
The Wolves lost games at Portland and Utah late last week. Their defeat in Salt Lake City dropped them from third place to sixth in the ultra-competitive West. Ninth place — out of the playoffs — was just 2 ½ games away.
“For us, I think it shows we’re mentally tough,” Crawford said about a team that has lost consecutive games nine times now but never more than that. “At times, the cards are stacked against us, and we find a way. Hopefully, we’ll continue to do that.”
The Celtics adjusted to Hayward’s absence almost instantaneously after they opened the season with losses to Cleveland and Milwaukee. Crawford calls the Wolves’ season a “roller coaster” on which they’ve adapted to playing without Butler and point guard Jeff Teague at times.
“If you put guys together at the beginning of the season, sometimes it takes a half-season to figure it out,” Crawford said. “For us, Jimmy’s our best player. Let’s be clear about that. With that, it takes time to adjust. There will be highs and lows. Just ride the wave.”
When he played for the Clippers, Crawford’s teams went without injured All Stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul at times, and he said those experiences delivered the same message that Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau preaches when he says Butler cannot be replaced by a single teammate.
“That’s what we figured out [in L.A.],” Crawford said. “The more we lean on each other, the better we are collectively.”
Crawford calls the Celtics’ season itself a lesson of what could be.
“Hayward going down the first game, everybody thought that was their season,” he said. “But they found a way. All those guys, they allowed themselves a chance to really grow so whenever Hayward comes back, they’ll be even better. They’ve been impressive, for sure.”