SALT LAKE CITY – Already contentious enough after referees ejected three players and whistled five technical fouls and a Type 2 flagrant foul Friday night, the Timberwolves’ 116-108 loss at Utah crossed over into something else when injured Wolves star Jimmy Butler from afar took to Twitter for the first time since 2016 to support his team.
And while coach Tom Thibodeau carefully measured his words afterward and ejected Wolves players Karl-Anthony Towns and Jeff Teague outright declined to talk, veteran forward Taj Gibson delighted in it all.
“Playoff basketball at its finest,” Gibson said, six weeks before the playoff fields are set. “That’s the way it was. That’s the old kind of way. Four, five years ago, guys took it personal. We need controversy in the game. It makes players better, spices the game up, no more buddy-buddy stuff. It’s just the time where win or go home. We’re trying to do something special. I think it’s good for our young guys.”
Towns was ejected for the first time in his young career when he collected two technicals in the first half’s final minute: The first for striking Jazz forward Jae Crowder with his forearm, the second after he repeatedly complained about the officiating.
Officiating crew chief Kane Fitzgerald told a media pool reporter afterward that Towns got the first technical for “the elbow to the face to Crowder” that was an automatic `T’ and the second was for “continuous complaint. Three or four plays in a row he was complaining and a technical foul was given.”
The Wolves were already shorthanded with Butler out these coming weeks and Gibson back in action after he left Thursday’s game at Portland because of a hip contusion.
Towns’ absence left them with little resistance to Jazz big man Rudy Gobert (26 points, 16 rebounds, 4 blocks) and Derrick Favors around both baskets even though Nemanja Bjelica played all but three minutes and Gibson played nearly 40 minutes on a hurting hip.
In one night, the Wolves fell from third place in the remarkably competitive Western Conference to six place by percentage points now that so little separates them from Portland, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
“When you lose KAT, we lost a lot,” Thibodeau said. “You lose your best rebounder, but they kept battling. I thought we had a chance down the stretch. We had some tough breaks.”
Thibodeau carefully searched for his words when asked if Towns’ two technicals and ensuing ejection were justified. “You don’t want me to answer that,” he said. “I’ll look at the film and let just say I was very disappointed in the way the game was managed.”
Butler provoked a social-media exchange with Crowder – the game’s third and final player tossed -- after he voiced support for Teague and Thibodeau during a game that was just getting started when Wolves All-Star Towns became the first player ejected 23 seconds before halftime.
With Butler back home rehabilitating, watching and tweeting and Towns gone from the game for collecting two quick technicals, the Wolves were outscored 19-0 in second-chance points, outrebounded 45-27 and ultimately outdone by eight points by a Utah team trying to chase the Wolves down in the Western Conference standings.
Butler took to Twitter after Teague with his shoulder and hip body-checked on the full run former Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio and sent Rubio tumbling into the Wolves’ bench with 5:20 left and the Wolves trailing by nine points. Rubio popped up, seeking retaliation while players from both teams converged.
“Why are you asking me?” Rubio asked afterward. “No comment.”
Referees reviewed video before giving Teague the flagrant Type 2 and automatic ejection for unnecessary and excessive contact.
haven’t used Twitter in years. But yeah Jeff that’s what I like to see. Rubio getting up quick for no reason.— Jimmy Butler (@JimmyButler) March 3, 2018
“Haven’t used Twitter for years. But yeah Jeff that’s what I like to see Rubio getting up quick for no reason,” Butler tweeted.
Thibodeau attributed Teague’s action to a preceding play at the other end in which Teague sought a foul call on Rubio that never came.
“It’s where we are,” Thibodeau said. “I thought Jeff got fouled on the play. He got frustrated. That’s the way it went. We had a lot of calls that I felt went against us.”
Later, after Thibodeau and Crowder both received technical fouls for jawing at each other, Butler tweeted, “Jae get away from my coach. You don’t want no smoke either.”
Jae get away from my coach. You don’t want no smoke either— Jimmy Butler (@JimmyButler) March 3, 2018
When told Butler is back on Twitter, Wolves veteran guard Jamal Crawford asked what Butler tweeted and then said, “That’s why we love Jimmy.”
Crowder responded in kind with an all capital letters response where he told Butler that Butler knows where to find him.
I DONT TWITTER BEEF ILL LEAVE THAT TO U.. BUT U GOT MY PHONE NUMBER AND KNOW MY HOME ADDRESS..!! THE REST CAN BE HISTORY ���� https://t.co/FGDRYnYyg5— JAE CROWDER (@CJC9BOSS) March 3, 2018
Crowder also expressed himself the old-fashioned way, to reporters after the game when he said about Teague, “He got him with a cheap shot, 100 percent. He never went for the ball, just shoved him. The rest is history.”
Gibson pleaded his case to Fitzgerald, seeking to keep Towns in the game and from ejection without success.
“If the ref feels he had to throw him out, but I just tried to make my case,” Gibson said. “In a time like this, we’re already shorthanded. Don’t make it ever tougher. But Kane is a good ref. He does what he sees.”
Both Thibodeau and Crawford praised their team for its spunk and refusal to back down.
“With Jimmy out, we’ve got to fight,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve got to play hard on every possession.”
Crawford called the Wolves’ responses “the spirit of competition” in which “everybody shows they want it” rather than considering it emotions gone too far.
“Obviously we’re already shorthanded without Jimmy and KAT, those are two All Stars right there,” Crawford said. “But you’ve got to be proud of the game and proud of the effort. I don’t feel like we took a step back tonight. I feel like we came to play and played to the end.
“You can go one of two ways: You can stand up or lay down. But guys stood up.”
Thibodeau stood up as well, jawing with Crowder face to face while the referees worked to sort out Teague’s proper punishment.
“Thibs is not a punk,” Gibson said. “He’s from Connecticut, man. When I saw them talking, going back and forth, Thibs doesn’t back down. Thibs is tough. He thinks he's from Brooklyn. That’s what we need. Our coaches have fire in them and we understand the stakes and I love it.”
Thibodeau often mentions how much he loves competition. He was asked after Friday’s game if he likes a game that turned contentious like this one did.
He paused briefly before he spoke.
“That wasn’t contentious,” Thibodeau said.