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Notebook: Jimmy Butler carries Timberwolves, Jeff Teague’s injury, protecting the ball

After Wednesday night’s 128-125 victory over the Denver Nuggets, the Timberwolves are sitting pretty.

The win elevated them to 22-13 on the season and fourth place in the Western Conference. Not only did they beat a team in the playoff picture for the second time in a week, they’re now two games ahead of 5th-place Oklahoma City.

At nine games above .500, there is now a five-game difference between the Wolves and eighth-seeded Portland. All of these games matter and the Timberwolves have beaten each of these teams. This may determine whether or not they have home court advantage come April.

The first half of the game was arguably the best basketball they’ve played all season.

Andrew Wiggins broke out of his slump by hitting three 3-pointers in the first quarter as the Wolves led 35-23 at the end of the first quarter. Combined with his teammates, the team shot 6-for-11 from beyond the arc. Not too shabby for one of the league’s worst 3-point shooting teams.

Had it not been for Jamal Murray, the Nuggets would have been finished by halftime. The swingman scored 13 points in the quarter as his team fought back. The Timberwolves countered with, well, everyone, as eight different players scored.

The 71 points the Wolves scored were a new season high for a half.

However, this is the NBA and teams rarely concede that easily. Denver’s Will Barton took over the scoring load for Murray, scoring eight points with two 3-pointers in the third quarter. The Wolves’ balanced attack continued but they shot just 35 percent which opened the door for their opponent. Their 19-point lead was trimmed to six entering the final frame.

From here, it was Jimmy Butler time. Butler and Barton would square off in a fourth quarter duel to determine a winner. Barton dropped in 12 points to counter Butler’s 11 and the game went to overtime.

Butler used the extra time to showcase his brilliance. The forward needed just three attempts to put up 12 points. Butler went 7-for-9 from the line in overtime to carry his team. Since Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson had fouled out, the Wolves needed Butler to step up. The all-star finished with 39 points, four rebounds, and five assists on 10-for-20 shooting.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t Butler who put the Wolves ahead for good. Jamal Crawford’s jumper with 47 seconds to go gave them the two-point lead and would hold on for the win.

When the Wolves beat the Nuggets a week ago, they were without both Paul Milsap and guard Gary Harris. Harris was mostly a non-factor as he was just 3-for-10 from the field as he tried to rediscover his rhythm. When healthy, Harris can be a difference maker. The same is certainly true for Milsap. Yet, a win is a win and the Wolves are now 7-1 against teams in their own division. Divisions may not matter much anymore but these are the teams on the Wolves’ heels.

More Jimmy Butler Superlatives

Did you know that the Wolves are 22-11 in games that Butler plays? That’s a 54-win pace. Butler does everything you could ask of a player on the court. He can score, crash the boards, facilitate, and guard four positions. You would never accuse Butler of taking a play off,  no less a game. He plays every second like his job is on the line.

Butler is averaging 21 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game on 47 percent shooting. The Timberwolves have had nine seasons ever in which a player has averaged 21-5-4 and shot at least 47 percent.

Kevin Garnett did it eight times and the other is Tom Gugliotta in 1998. That’s it.

Butler is already solidifying his place in franchise history. There’s a valid argument for him being the second-best player in team history behind Garnett and ahead of Kevin Love. In what is shaping up to be the most productive season by a perimeter player in team history, he’s already likely the best shooting guard/small forward Target Center faithful have seen.

He’s also showing no signs of slowing down. Wednesday was his sixth 30-point performance this season and his fifth consecutive 20-point game.

Finding a replacement for Jeff Teague

Jeff Teague left Wednesday’s game after Gary Harris landed on his leg in the fourth quarter. Early speculation is that it’s a knee but that he was still able to walk on his own power after the game. We’ll need to await an announcement that gives more information but it won’t hurt the team to have a contingency plan.

Tyus Jones would and should obviously be the starter. When Jones is on the floor, the ball moves very well. Despite Teague’s scoring advantages, there’s less one-on-one basketball with Jones. Jones has also become the team’s most efficient 3-point shooter which is all they need given the other scorers on the floor.

Veteran Aaron Brooks has been fine as the team’s third point guard. But he has also had his share of struggles this season and is more of a score-first point guard.

An interesting name the Wolves should consider is Mike James, who was recently let go by Phoenix. James is a 27-year old rookie who earned a multi-year deal from the Suns earlier this season before being released. Normally, it’d be concerning that a player is released soon after signing an extension but the Suns are known to be dysfunctional at times. Whether it was Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, or Markieff Morris, players often leave the team on poor terms.

James is reportedly weighing offers from overseas but has been waiting to make a decision in case an NBA job opens up. Depending on the severity of Teague’s injury, one may have opened and the Wolves have an extra two-way contract available.

Wolves limiting turnovers this season

The Timberwolves had a whopping six turnovers against the Nuggets on Wednesday. This topped their previous low against Phoenix earlier this season. As a whole, they average the second-fewest turnovers per game at 13.2. Oddly enough, the lowly Dallas Mavericks have the best mark at 13.0 per game.

Not giving away possessions is important for a team that has a slow pace and doesn’t shoot 3-pointers. If they started giving opponents extra possessions and had to try coming back with 2-pointers, this season wouldn’t be going as well. We’ve also seen the transition defense be suspect at times, so not making mistakes in the first place is especially important.





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