When Timberwolves veteran point guard Jeff Teague came off the floor Wednesday night just seven minutes back from injury, you might have considered the ensuing applause from Target Center’s sellout crowd a heartfelt welcome back.
You would have been wrong.
You see, teammate Tyus Jones checked into the game when Teague picked up two quick fouls in his first action after he missed seven games because of a sprained knee ligament.
The big crowd cheered Jones’ entrance because Minnesotans love their own, he played efficiently once again in Teague’s absence and, well, everybody loves the backup quarterback.
But if you know Timberwolves coach/president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau at all, you know that, unlike in social media’s chatter, there’s no quarterback controversy here.
Jones ran the team admirably when that Grade 1 sprain sidelined Teague. In fact, you could say the ball movement looked better, the defense was more active and he fit snugly with the other four starters
Jones is in the top five in the league in both assists and steals per turnover, and he’s also the top-ranked point guard in defensive real plus-minus, an advanced statistic that measures a player’s average impact on his team’s defensive performance by the number of points allowed per 100 offensive possessions.
But Teague went back to his starter’s job and Jones returned to the bench last week for two big reasons:
• As much as he and GM Scott Layden have beefed up the team’s analytics department, Thibodeau still trusts a coach’s feel and the eye test more.
• Most important, the playoffs are just 38 games away.
Thibodeau traded fan favorite Ricky Rubio away last summer and signed Teague to a three-year, $57 million contract precisely with the playoffs in mind. He did so because of the pressure Teague’s shooting and pick-and-roll expertise places on opposing defenses, particularly in the playoffs when the game’s pace slows and those defenses pucker.
Thibodeau also did so because Teague has reached the playoffs every season in his eight-year NBA career. He has played 66 playoff games, advanced past the first round four times and played in the 2015 Eastern Conference finals.
The Wolves, of course, never made the playoffs during Rubio’s six seasons in Minnesota, and his offense threatened defenses very little in any season, regular or post. In his third NBA season, Jones hasn’t played a playoff game yet, either.
More than anything, Thibodeau values experience and winning.
He considered signing either Teague or Derrick Rose — whom he coached for five successful seasons in Chicago, that is when Rose wasn’t injured — after he dealt Rubio for salary-cap space and a future first-round pick.
He chose Teague over Rose mainly for his durability. Until this season, Teague played at least 79 games in four of the past five seasons.
“Jeff has been around a long time, and Jeff has done a lot of winning,” Thibodeau said. “That’s probably the most important thing.”
It’s also important to note Thibodeau is invested in Teague, having traded Rubio to clear way for Teague and having guaranteed him $57 million. Last season, Thibodeau often steered reporters’ questions about Rubio toward mentions of rookie Kris Dunn. Thibodeau also was invested in Dunn, but not enough to keep the 2016 draft’s fifth pick from being traded away on draft night to pluck Jimmy Butler.
Recently, Thibodeau has deflected questions about Jones. He calls Teague one of the league’s best point guards, which could be true depending upon how big your ‘‘best’’ pool is.
All coaches choose players they trust more than others. In Thibodeau’s case, it’s worth remembering he holds both coaching and head personnel jobs.
If you’re inclined to crunch numbers, also remember this one that Thibodeau values most of all:
The Wolves are 21-11 when Teague plays, 6-5 when he doesn’t.
• When Wolves forward Marcus Georges-Hunt treated 10 kids from the Boys and Girls Club to a fun night out at the Mall of America last week, teammate and three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler showed up to lend his support. He did the same last month when he joined Tyus Jones to watch Jones’ Duke-bound brother, Tre, play a game for Apple Valley High School. In October, he appeared unannounced to watch a Wolves employee’s son play a fourth-grade football game. “I just love people,” Butler said. “I get to be a human, a normal person like everybody else sometimes. If I can go sit down in a restaurant with nobody else in there so I’m not bothered, I’m doing it. I love being a person. I always enjoy my teammates’ kids, all my people that I’m always around. This is like a family atmosphere, so I want to support them, just like they support me.” So if you see someone at a youth football or basketball game you swear looks like Jimmy Butler, it’s probably him. That’s maybe not surprising from a guy who often carries a football that pal and Steelers receiver Antonio Brown gave him. “I think it’s fun,” Butler said. “It takes me back to when I was a kid and how I played little-league football, little-league basketball. There’s no pressure at all. You could shoot five air balls and everybody’s still proud of you. You could have the worst game, the best game and you still get a snack after the game. It really puts the love back into it, like being a kid again even though I’m 28. I don’t really play video games, but I’ll support little league all the time.”
WOLVES’ WEEK AHEAD
Sunday: 8 p.m. vs. Portland
Tuesday: 6 p.m. at Orlando
Thursday: 8:30 p.m. at Houston
Saturday: 8 p.m. vs. Toronto
Sun. FSN+/ESPN, Tue. FSN Thu. TNT, Sat. FSN+
Player to watch: CJ McCollum, Trail Blazers
Yet another dynamic Blazers guard, he kept them winning over Oklahoma City and San Antonio while backcourt mate Damian Lillard was out because of a calf injury.
“He probably doesn’t get enough, well, he does get enough credit.”
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau, catching himself when talking about what a unique player superstar LeBron James is.
Twitter: @JerryZgoda, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Blog: startribune.com/wolves