MINNEAPOLIS – The immediate reaction Saturday evening at Target Center was one of relief.
Yes, Jimmy Butler could miss the rest of the season because of the meniscus injury (likely a tear of some sort) he suffered in his right knee on Friday in Houston, but the initial fear was that Butler had torn his anterior cruciate ligament and that would have kept him out well into next season.
“The big thing is ruling out the ACL,” Wolves basketball boss and coach Tom Thibodeau said. “That would have been an extended amount of time (missed).”
Nonetheless, the Wolves’ season took a dramatic turn when their veteran leader and four-time All-Star was helped off the floor late in the third quarter at Toyota Center.
Minnesota is now third in the Western Conference, sitting 11 games over .500, after a 122-104 victory over Chicago on Saturday at Target Center. Looking for their first playoff berth after a 13-year absence, the Wolves have 19 regular-season games remaining and while they are near the top of the conference, they are only 3.5 games in front of the Los Angeles Clippers, the first team out of the playoff picture.
With Butler there wasn’t much question about whether the Wolves were going to the postseason. That certainty is no longer the case.
Butler was leading the Wolves in scoring (22.2 points per game), was second in assists (five) and third in rebounding (5.4). He also was second in the NBA in minutes played per game (37.1) and is one of the best defenders in the league.
So how do you replace all that?
“Jimmy does so many things for our team,” Thobideau said. “That’s why I say we’re not going to replace him individually, but collectively we can in terms of if we defend as a team, if we rebound as a team, if we take care of the ball as a team, if we share the ball as a team, if we play smart.”
As Thibodeau did during a four-game stretch in January when Butler sat out because of a sore right knee, he started Nemanja Bjelica in Butler’s place against the Bulls. Bjelica had eight points, seven rebounds and four assists in 32 minutes.
The Wolves also got a game-high 25 points from point guard Jeff Teague, who added seven key rebounds and seven assists. Jamal Crawford came off the bench to score 19 points (11 in the fourth quarter), making five of eight three-pointers, and starters Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson added 22 and 19 points, respectively.
No matter how much Thibodeau and his players talk about this being an all-around effort – “No one person is going to fill (Butler’s) role so everybody has to kind of chip in,” Crawford said – the player everyone will be focused on is going to be Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins, signed to a five-year, $148 million max contract in October, has had a maddeningly inconsistent season that has left many questioning whether he was worth the investment owner Glen Taylor and Thobideau made in him.
The Wolves opened the season assuming they had a Big Three in Butler, Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. That hasn’t been the case. While Butler and Towns were both selected to the All-Star Game last weekend, Wiggins sat home along with the rest of the Wolves’ supporting cast.
Wiggins, though, had one of his better stretches this season when Butler was out.
During that four-game period, Wiggins averaged 25.8 points on 21 field-goal attempts as the Wolves beat Toronto and the Clippers before losing at Portland and Golden State. Those stats were a significant improvement from Wiggins’ season averages of 17.6 points on 15.7 shots.
Wiggins led the Wolves in scoring in the three of those games and had 40 points against the Clippers. That made the Wolves 2-4 on the season without Butler. He had missed back-to-back games in October and Minnesota was blown out by Indiana and Detroit.
The Wolves improved to 3-4 without Butler on Saturday as Wiggins contributed 23 points, on 10-for-18 shooting, and added two rebounds and two assists in 34 minutes.
Wiggins will now get an extended opportunity to restore some of the confidence the Wolves put in him when they decided to give him that rich deal.
If Wiggins is to impress, he will have to do it against some quality competition.
The Wolves will play 12 of their remaining 19 games against teams that are above .500. That includes an eight-game stretch — against Portland, Utah, Boston, Golden State, Washington, San Antonio, Houston and the Clippers — that will begin after Minnesota plays Monday night in Sacramento.
“(Butler) means everything,” Crawford said. “A lot of things that he brings to the table you can’t even put on a stat sheet. He does so much stuff off the court to make sure we’re moving in the right direction as a leader, as a player as a person. He’s invaluable.”
Can the Wolves make the playoffs without him?
The Wolves will tell you it will take a total team effort, if the answer is going to be yes. But Wiggins figures to play a large role in providing that answer.