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Wolves 119, Thunder 116: Butler Returns and Towns Responds

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Jimmy Butler’s return sparks the Wolves.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves
Grit: courage and resolve; strength of character.
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — If Jimmy Butler’s two-game absence this week due to an upper respiratory infection wasn’t enough evidence of his supreme value to the Wolves, Friday night’s 119-115 win over the Thunder should close the case.

After back-to-back utterly putrid performances at home against the Pacers and on the road vs. the Pistons—the details can be spared from this space—the team welcomed back their three-time All-Star to the starting lineup, and the result was a second win over Oklahoma City in the last week.

Butler finished with 25 points, seven assists, and five rebounds in a gritty return that demonstrated his worth, if anyone had doubts.

“Did you see my face,” Butler said after being asked how he felt at the end of the game. “How did you think I felt? Matching up with Russ all that time, oh my God.”

During player introductions, seconds before his name was called, Butler walked behind the bench to violently blow his nose before the lights turned back on. Then it was tip-off and full speed ahead.

The game was tied 59-59 at halftime, it was 90-89 after Gorgui Dieng hit a buzzer-beater to take the lead heading into the fourth, and 119-116 with three seconds remaining. Carmelo Anthony missed the 26-foot three and Butler secured the rebound for the win.

The heart and soul of the new-look Wolves instantly made his presence felt, but the response by Karl-Anthony Towns after heavy criticism over his dispiriting defensive efforts, over the first five games to start the season, was equally impactful.

33 points, 19 rebounds and four blocks later, Towns spoke with a quiet, reserved tone. It was clear the franchise center has heard the noise over his defensive lapses in halfcourt sets, as well as the ugly transition defense that has often resulted in him being the last man up the floor.

But as teammate Taj Gibson described it, Towns was “relentless” in this game. KAT responded. It was exactly what the veteran leaders in the locker room, Butler and Gibson, expect from him every game.

“I just wanted to be the best I could,” said Towns. “Everyone’s talking and I could hear all the talk in the background. I wanted to try to silence it as much as possible tonight. I wanted my team to be the focus, and I was able to do that tonight, to give them as much effort and energy as I had today.”

Towns has heard the “chitter-chatter,” which seemed to lead to a different mentality entering the game. “I was locked in defensively,” he said. Tonight brought more of the Kentucky Towns many people have expected entering the league. That is, a high-level enforcer in the paint; the rim protector the Wolves desperately need to patrol the lane.

“Karl was ready. He was locked in,” Butler commented. “When he’s playing like that, he’s arguably one of the best players in the league. We need that every night.”

Four different Thunder players tallied 20+ points, led by Russell Westbrook’s 27. Westbrook added nine assists and eight rebounds in 36 minutes. 14 of his 27 points came in the fourth quarter. He always seems to turn it up 100 notches when the Thunder need him most.

Paul George has been struggling to get buckets to start his Thunder days, but finished with 23 points on 8-16 shooting. Andrew Wiggins adjusted pretty well to PG13, who dropped 12 points the first. It felt like George was set to erupt, but the Wolves were able to adjust and he cooled off. Chalk that up as a big win.

Carmelo Anthony scored 23 points and Steven Adams finished with 20 points on 8-10 shooting. The start of the third quarter was basically Towns vs. Adams. Are you not entertained?

VIDEOS

QUOTES

Jimmy Butler on if the team feeds off him:

“I hope so. That’s part of my role here to make sure everybody is doing the right thing, playing with energy on both ends of the floor. We have a really talented group of guys. When everybody is clicking like that and we’re executing, yeah we had some hiccups, but when everybody’s swinging the ball, moving the ball, playing team defense and team offense, we’re going to be all right.”

Did you see anything in particular in the two games you watched on TV?

“We had low energy, we didn’t get back. But we got better and that’s all we can ask from everybody ... try and correct it and get better.”

Karl-Anthony Towns on Jimmy coming back:

“It’s a huge advantage when you have Jimmy on the floor. A lot of mistakes that people make get covered up. Jimmy’s that great of a talent and does a lot of things for us on the court and obviously in the fourth quarter he’s a big guy.”

Tom Thibodeau on having Butler back in the lineup:

“It makes a big difference. That’s who he is. He plays both sides of the ball and that’s probably the most important thing. He guards everyone. He play-makes. Just having his presence. He’s a great leader. He does the right things on the floor.”

On Butler leading by example:

“It’s more the actions of how he gets ready and then what he’s doing on the floor. I think you saw the play where Wiggins hit the floor and I think Wig is making great strides on that end. I thought, being around Jimmy helps him a lot and he helps all our guys. He’s a veteran leader who’s been through a lot of things and he’s young. I think it’s helpful from that standpoint and I think Jimmy has learned a lot from some of the things that he’s gone through. I think he shares that with him and what they’re going through now are things that he’s just gone through. So I think from that standpoint, it’s great. I think he and Taj bring a lot of toughness to our team, which we need desperately. I thought Jeff was terrific right at the end of the half. I thought he got going, was very aggressive and when he plays like that he makes our team very tough.”

On Jeff Teague’s performance:

“We didn’t play well the two previous games, but I think he’s showing that he’s getting more comfortable. It’s hard. It’s not an easy transition when you come in and you’re learning everyone, but the challenge is you’ve got to move along quickly. I’d rather have them make aggressive mistakes than being passive. I know when he’s attacking, he’s special.”

OKC coach Billy Donovan on the Wolves’ offensive rebounding:

“With just their personnel, they’re just instinctively those kind of players. Wiggins has always been a good offensive rebounder. Towns goes to the glass, Taj goes to the glass. There’s times Butler’s in there. They have those players that are going to go in there and rebound. We got caught on some rotational blockouts. That’s where we’ve got to get better. We’re coming over to help on a drive, shot goes up and we do a good job contesting the shot, we’re there for help, we keep the ball out of the deep paint but when the ball gets up on the backboard, our ability to rotationally block out and come up with those rebounds is important. They generated a lot of extra possessions because of that.”

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves
Yeah, best wishes, Josh Huestis.
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

NOTES

  • Jeff Teague guarded Andre Roberson to start the night, sinking down into the paint almost every possession. It yielded mixed results; Teague ball-watches too much and this allowed Roberson to dive into the paint a few times for offensive rebounds. OKC wasn’t really able to take advantage of the matchup in a big way, so hiding Teague there seemed like the smart choice. I simply wanted to see him show a little more awareness off-ball. Speaking of matchups...Butler guarded Westbrook throughout the night. Having an elite wing to put on the former MVP is such a foreign feeling. Butler made things about as difficult as one could reasonably expect when taking on the Point God, Westbrook. George defended Butler in a cross matchup, which always intrigues me; finding your man in transition when not matched up on the other end can be difficult and leads to a lot of smart and timely switching. There were plenty of interesting matchups to keep in mind down the road. Melo took it to Nemanja Bjelica during a short stretch. It’s Hoodie Melo, though! He’s like a totally different species, right? Gorgui also guarded Melo a little bit with some better results. Steven Adams vs. Towns is always fun to see. KAT did an excellent job of keeping Adams off the glass. Adams is terribly difficult to move from his spot, and when he gets deep position in the paint, there’s not a whole lot Towns, or most bigs for that matter, can do about it. KAT was smart to avoid the foul trouble, in general. A few buckets here and there ultimately kept him on the court. It’s a necessary evil.
  • Teague recorded his first double-double as a Wolf, finishing with 17 points and 10 assists (season-high) in 37 minutes. His two best games of the season have both come against OKC. Teague started off super passive, not looking to score at all, and made some ill-advised passes and decisions in the first quarter but he flipped the switch in his second stint. The six turnovers were bad, but he cleaned a lot up after the first quarter. The biggest thing with Teague is he needs to look for his shot. He absolutely has to score to be effective in Minnesota. At the end of the day that’s exactly why he was brought on board to replace Ricky Rubio. If he isn’t scoring and/or setting others up with great dishes, he’s not going to be able to do enough to be a positive factor. His defense has been rough to watch thus far, though seemed better once things settled down. Thibs seemed to be hiding him for whatever it’s worth, which is fine, as long as they can cover him up (unlike the previous two losses).
  • As a whole, I thought Teague was excellent in his role tonight. Defenders are going over the screens and that’s opening up the pocket passes to Towns out of pick-and-rolls. My gut tells me Teague will continue to find his groove in the offense as time passes and everyone gains chemistry. As long as he’s assertive and not tentative, he’s more than capable of holding down the lead point guard spot in a positive way. We should keep an eye on his three-point shooting moving forward. Two triples in this one!
  • Taj Gibson scored a season-high 16 points on 8-12 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds. It’s probably more shots than anybody would like to see from him, but Gibson was efficient tonight. OKC seemed to be completely fine, like other opponents have been early this season, with him getting open looks. He hit them. I feel confident saying the Wolves probably wouldn’t have won this game without Gibson. Strong defense, efficient offense, five offensive rebounds, and great communication. There was tons of chatter between him and Towns throughout the game. I liked seeing that.
  • Wiggins final line: 14 points (5-15), 3 rebounds, 1 assist, two steals, two blocks. 3-7 from deep (good volume!) and pretty strong defense throughout the night, all things considered. What is a reasonable expectation for guarding George anyway? Thibs and numerous players praised his hustle, citing a loose-ball dive later in the game as a prime example. Doing the little things is going to be key for him this season. Tonight, his shot wasn’t falling—it wasn’t the best shot selection overall outside of the catch-and-shoot treys—and he kind of took a backseat in crunch time. That was Jimmy Butler time.
  • Minnesota outrebounded Oklahoma City 16-8 in the deciding fourth quarter, including grabbing seven offensive rebounds. In total the Timberwolves finished with a season-high 17 offensive rebounds while also matching its largest rebounding margin of the season (+9). This season Minnesota is 3-0 when outrebounding its opponent.