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Wolves 100, Jazz 97: Jamal shines in the fourth

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Jamal Crawford ended up stealing the show on a night that brought standing ovations, an emotional reunion, and saw tempers flair between division rivals.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Before Kendrick Lamar’s Humble instrumental boomed throughout the packed Target Center as the Wolves starters were introduced to the first opening night sellout crowd since 2012, the new leader of the pack stood confidently at center court with a microphone in hand to sincerely thank the fans for their support.

Jimmy Butler waited 15 seconds to deliver that message, fully taking in the first standing ovation of the night. It was a roaring welcome to Minnesota moment for the biggest acquisition in franchise history; an electric vibe filled the newly renovated arena, and fans were oozing with enthusiasm over the “New Era” Wolves.

“These fans deserve it,” said Jamal Crawford. “Did you hear when we first came out? It was crazy [that energy] and we’re going to keep it going all year.”

The second standing ovation, moments after Butler finished relishing his, was in honor of an old friend. Ricky Rubio returned to Target Center for the Wolves’ home opener for the seventh consecutive season. Only this time the divisive point guard, who captivated diehard local viewers with dazzling passes and merciless defense, was wearing a different number, three, with a new team embroidered across his chest. The response to his introduction was perfect. (Rubio is terribly missed by many in Minnesota, including me.)

Once the pre-game festivities ended, and the bright lights turned back on, the Wolves struggled to find their footing on the offensive end in the second game of the season. Andrew Wiggins scored 10 of the Wolves first 19 points and finished with 21 in the game after dropping 26 in San Antonio (though his efficiency was worse: 7-19, 2-6, 5-6). His five rebounds, three of which were offensive, gives him two consecutive games with five boards; Wiggins talked about wanting to hit the glass a lot harder this season at Media Day and throughout the preseason. It appears he’s putting that goal into action.

But back to the Wolves’ offense. Things are congested right now in halfcourt sets. Jeff Teague and Butler both have to find their place. Where do they fit best? How do they function in a way that best utilizes their skills? Both have been a bit passive to start, though Butler was less tonight than in San Antonio this past Wednesday. That’s to be expected since the starting lineup is loaded with offensive talent. There should be little doubt about how good the offense should eventually become, but right now it’s clear the starters are working on pecking order, figuring out what everyone does best, and trying to identify the spots each of them thrives in.

Jeff Teague seems frustrated after two games of trying to navigate his way through the half-court congestion. He missed spot-up and catch-and-shoot threes. Hitting those attempts in future games should help his confidence. Teague needs to find himself in the offense in the coming weeks. On-ball defense has been a large issue for him, particularly dealing with screens, though the two game sample is too small to say for sure whether or not he’s going to be hugely negative in Thibs’ system.

Step one for Teague offensively: focus on facilitating and get the action going quickly. Enough probing the defense. The ball should not stick in his hands. This team is loaded with offensive weapons. Move the ball. Cut. Drive. Dish. Work together as one. There is little need for isolation offense with this group, aside from Towns, Butler, or Wiggins being on an island on the block or in the mid-post. We saw some of this against Utah and the shots that Towns and Butler got out of these looks were excellent, resulting in high efficiency.

Butler finished his Target Center debut with 13 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and five steals. The two free throws he hit with :05 seconds left basically sealed the victory for the Wolves, though, of course, the Jazz and Joe Johnson still got a corner three to potentially tie the game after Wiggins was called for a foul to extend the night one more possession.

The general takeaway from Butler’s game is that his motor is unmatched by basically any player throughout the league. He almost reminds me of Russell Westbrook in the way that his energy and emotion and shear talent pushes him into this class well past everyone else. His teammates also go to an entirely different level because of him. He is contagious. You can feel the desire burning deep inside of his bones. Perhaps the best part of watching Butler is this intense feeling that you absolutely know in your heart the man is leaving legitimately everything he has out on the court.

For as much as I love the offensive potential of Zach LaVine, I have found myself completely unable to escape how monumental of an upgrade Butler is on the wing next to Wiggins. Butler will help on the weakside, or straight up rip the ball out of Rodney Hood’s hands, fight through screens, or contest shots he really had no business contesting. This is not meant to diss LaVine, who is seriously one of my favorite guys in the basketball world, in any way.

Instead, the point is: the Wolves have never had a two-way wing like Jimmy G Buckets and they turned their best tradable asset into him. Butler is an absolute machine built to go faster and play harder on every single possession. It’s really hard not to smile when seeing the determination, the unbelievable grit, and the ultimate desire to be one of the best in the league. He will go to war on the hardwood for wins, and demand respect in the rugged Western Conference, right in front of our faces.

The Utah Jazz are a tough matchup for the Wolves given their defensive ability — Ricky Rubio and Rudy Gobert set the tone and everyone sandwiched between executed their duties extremely well. There were no easy buckets on this Friday night. For the first time in a long time, the Wolves bench was better. The veteran Crawford (J-Crossover) can be thanked for a lot of that. He saved his new squad from blowing the 92-82 lead with 4:21 remaining in the game. Crawford’s three with 28 seconds to play lifted the Wolves.

“He’s used to putting the ball in the basket. He’s done it for so many teams in his 17-year career,” said Butler. “That’s what he does, and that’s what we need him to do.”

All of Crawford’s 17 points came in the fourth quarter. “You’re not playing with an agenda, you’re just playing to win,” he said afterwards. “I was frustrated in the first half. I missed some easy shots. I just stayed aggressive. My teammates and my coaches told me to stay aggressive. I was happy to play a small part in winning this game.”

Nemanja Bjelica had 10 points and five rebounds off the bench. Belly has been nothing but hugely impactful in the first two games, leading the team in +/- both contests, although he hasn’t been getting much sleep with his newborn baby. (Belly: +15 @ Spurs and +14 vs. Jazz).

In his third NBA season, Bjelica appears to be figuring out his place in a big way. He looks comfortable catching the ball on the perimeter and crisp decisions are happening almost every time. Shoot, pass, or drive? Belly is making all of the right decisions to start the 2017-18 season, and defensively he has seemingly become one of Thibs’ biggest assets as a 6’10 forward who can move well and switch on to a variety of wings and bigs.

“I think his [Bjelica] strength is team defense,” said Tom Thibodeau. “And awareness and ability to read what’s happening. He thinks when he’s on the weak side, he has a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the guys he’s guarding, so he’s doing a much better job with that.”

NOTES

— Butler wore pink Air Jordan 32 Lows to support Breast Cancer.

— Towns and Gibson were a bit shaky in the frontcourt defensively to start the night but both settled down later in the second quarter and were able to keep Gobert and Favors from really damaging them on the interior. Towns’ two early fouls kept him on the bench for a while, but the offense started to get going once he was subbed back in. KAT’s righty-hook shot anywhere near the basket remains automatic. Nobody can block that. He will continue to destroy centers across the league with it.

(GAME OVER, FLIP, FLIP, FLIP, FLIP, FLIP, FLIP, FLIP, FLIP.)

— Crawford: “If you can learn in wins, it’s always better than learning in losses.” No disagreements here, Jamal.

Taj Gibson was relentless on the glass. Talk about fighting for rebounds. The Jazz, particularly Gobert and Favors, looked increasingly annoyed with Gibson as the night went on. His physicality and toughness truly stuck out. Speaking of rebounding ... Wiggins grabbed three offensive boards. I wanted to mention this again. Keep hitting the boards, Wiggs.

— Utah had a 65-58 lead with 3:10 to play in the third quarter before Minnesota ran off the final 12 points to take a 70-65 lead after three periods.

— Jazz coach Quin Snyder on the loss: “We went on a run to go up 65-58. Leads, especially on the road, you want to make someone work to get points back. It felt like, particularly on the offensive glass, they were the more aggressive team and that hurt us during that stretch. We’re trying to figure it out a little bit right now. To come in and play against one of the top teams in the West and to be in the position that we were, where we had the ball and we’re ahead at the end of the game, we didn’t make plays to close the game. It wasn’t that we didn’t make plays offensively. It was on both sides of the ball, we had a couple offensive rebounds we almost put in at the end and couldn’t quite get them to fall. So I’m proud of the way we competed and I think if we keep doing that we’ll keep improving.”

— Karl-Anthony Towns posted his second consecutive double-double to open the season. 20 and 10. Nothing to see here. Wait until he starts playing great. Thought: Use him in the pick-and-roll with Butler as the primary ball-handler way more often. Spread the floor with Wiggins, Teague, and Gibson/Belly/Crawford (whoever makes the most sense!)

— Butler on pumping up the crowd after he and Rubio got into it, resulting in the double-technical. “We love it like that. I want everybody into it all of the time. We’re going to need our crowd into it, they’re a big part of the game. They have a lot of love for basketball here and we want to take them to the promised land.”

— Rubio posted 19 points, 10 assists and 5 rebounds in his return to the building he always brought immense joy to over the years. He hit 10-11 from the line. Trailing 92-82 with 4:58 to play, Utah rallied back to take the 96-95 lead with :55.1 seconds. The Wolves almost flushed another game down the drain. Towns said afterwards the win showed maturity and the benefit of adding veterans. Ricky was asked about coming back to Target Center to face his old team. “Once the game starts you forget a little bit of that but it was emotional before the game, seeing all my friends,” said Rubio. “Once the game starts up it’s 48 minutes and you’re just trying to win.”

— Rodney Hood nailed back-to-back-to-back threes to take the 55-50 lead at the 6:59 mark in the third quarter. Unfortunately for Hood, he had to be helped off the court by teammates, after scoring a team-high 20 points, with what looked to be a left ankle injury of some sort after stepping on Towns’ foot. Serious injuries stink. We can all agree on that point. Hopefully Mr. Hood is fine and this injury is fairly minor in the big scheme of things. Rubio skip passes to Rodney for corner treys should definitely be a go-to thing in Utah.

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