DENVER – Deferring no more, Timberwolves star Jimmy Butler came to Denver for Wednesday's game playing in December just like the guy Tom Thibodeau once coached in Chicago.

He averaged 25.8 points, six rebounds and 5.2 assists in December's first nine games.

"He has been great, he has been great all year," Thibodeau said. "Probably scoring a little more now, but just the all-around play: the defense, the rebounding, the passing, the playmaking. Just about everything."

Denver coach Michael Malone was asked before Wednesday's game if the Butler he has scouted recently is the same one he remembers from Chicago.

"He looks like the Jimmy who has taken over," Malone said. "Down the stretch and the ball in his hands, he's making the plays, he's drawing the foul, he's getting to the line. I think anytime, whether it's [Nuggets star] Paul Millsap or Jimmy Butler, you go to a new team and new surroundings and it doesn't happen overnight. There is a transition.

"We were finding that with Paul Millsap when he got hurt. Jimmy Butler obviously is starting to be the Jimmy Butler who will take over and make the big plays, not just on offense but on defense as well."

Butler's 37-point, six-rebound, four-assist game in Monday's 108-107 home victory over Portland was his fourth 30-point game this month and it came purportedly despite a hurting back.

When told it didn't look like he was aching, Butler said, "I don't even know what you're talking about."

Almost there?

Thibodeau said injured reserve forward Nemanja Bjelica is "a lot closer" to playing — he has missed the past 13 games because of a mid-foot sprain — but he wasn't specific.

Bjelica hasn't played since Nov. 22. He expected to return nearly three weeks ago, but experienced soreness after he increased his workouts. Back doing three-on-three contact work, Bjelica said before Wednesday's game that he'll work out the next two days and see how he feels with Saturday's game at Phoenix next.


Butler often claims he doesn't have a good memory, but he remembers an encounter with Nuggets star big man Nikola Jokic in the 2016 Olympics.

"I still owe him," Butler said. "He busted my lip in the Olympics, so don't think I've forgotten about that. He did, on a screen. He caught me with one of those chicken wings. It's OK. I don't forget, though."

Missing Millsap

Nuggets guards Gary Harris (elbow contusion) and Emmanuel Mudiay (ankle sprain) didn't play, and Millsap remains out until at least February because of a wrist ligament injury. The Nuggets signed Millsap to a three-year, $90 million contract last summer to play beside Jokic.

"They can only go up when he comes back," said Wolves point guard Jeff Teague, who played with Millsap in Atlanta. "He's a dynamic player, really good on both ends. He gives them a different look offensively. That's probably one of the best 4-5 [power forward-center] combinations in the NBA. Both really talented, both really unselfish players and both can move the ball and make plays."


• Rookie center Justin Patton averaged 10 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 17.1 minutes played in five games with the Timberwolves' Iowa team in the G League.

• Wednesday was the ninth anniversary of Wolves veteran Jamal Crawford third 50-point game, for three different teams. He scored 50 for Golden State on Dec. 20, 2008, after having done the same for New York in January 2007 and Chicago in April 2004. "I definitely have one more in me, but I think it's almost impossible to do it off the bench, to be honest with you," he said.

• Crawford on Monday joined Dell Curry as the only two men since 1963-64 to score double-digits off the bench in 500 games. Dell, the father of Stephen Curry, did it 569 times.