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Timberwolves 128, Nuggets 125: This is Jimmy Butler’s Team

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A spectacular performance by Butler elevates the Wolves in overtime.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

When Tom Thibodeau and the Minnesota Timberwolves acquired Jimmy Butler in a trade on the night of the 2017 NBA Draft, we all knew what would happen.

We just didn’t know when.

It hasn’t been a secret that the Timberwolves have been poised to snap their skid of lowly seasons for some time now. The roster has acquired immense talent over the past few years, particularly in the form of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

But the team was missing a true identity. The Timberwolves were a bunch of young pups scrambling to make Thibodeau’s complex schemes work, and the chemistry just never clicked.

So Thibs went out and acquired Butler — the missing identity.

Once that trade was made official eight months ago, many believed that the Wolves would eventually become Butler’s team. Nobody knew exactly when it would happen, just that it would happen.

Throughout the month of December, we have witnessed the Timberwolves become Jimmy Butler’s team. His leadership, his experience, his toughness, his grit, his clutch gene — it’s all on display, and it might just be the missing piece to Minnesota’s formula for a deep playoff run.

Jimmy Buckets has assumed the role of “closer” for the Wolves in December, and he has been electric in that role. Prior to Wednesday’s 128-125 overtime win over the Denver Nuggets, Butler was leading the NBA in fourth quarter scoring at 9.4 points per game. That was before Wednesday night.

Then he dropped 23 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, willing his team to victory essentially by himself. When Denver went on a 22-4 run to swipe the lead late in the fourth quarter, Butler took over and refused to let his team lose.

Butler’s month-by-month numbers show he has gradually grabbed this team by the horns. In five October games, Butler averaged 16.9 points per game with a usage percentage of 20.0. In November, Butler’s usage rate jumped to 23.1% as his points per game increased to 17.9. A switch flipped as the calendar flipped to December, as Butler’s usage rate has increased to 26.2% while scoring over 26 points per game. Furthermore, Butler’s offensive rating, true shooting percentage and field goal percentage have all increased with each month.

Minnesota struggled finding its identity in the first month and a half of the season. Slowly, Jimmy Butler has taken over, and forged that identity by delivering in big moments.

The Timberwolves appear to have a framework in place for the playoffs — assuming they continue this pace and qualify. The offensive talent of Towns, Wiggins, Crawford and Teague (pending injury) can carry this team through the first three quarters. while Butler and Taj Gibson can lead the defensive effort. Once the fourth quarter comes around, it’s time for Butler to get buckets.

We saw it tonight, with the Wolves streaking out to a big lead in the first half, and increasing it in the third quarter as their shooting was excellent and the scoring well-balanced. But a furious run from the Nuggets starting late in the third saw an 18 point lead entirely dissipate. At which point, it became Butler time.

Butler’s performance — particularly in the fourth quarter — in December suggests this identity could bode very well for the Timberwolves in April and May.

Quick Notes

  • Jeff Teague was helped off the court late due to an ugly knee injury. My amateur diagnosis isn’t a happy one, and I assume the Wolves will proceed hoping for the best but fearing the worst. An MRI is scheduled for tomorrow. It’s probably Tyus Jones time.
  • Taj Gibson’s toughness is the perfect counterpart to Butler in clutch moments. Those two hooked up for a couple of scores on pick-and-roll sets Wednesday night when Towns fouled out. Gibson is as fundamentally sound of a player on both ends of the floor as you’ll find in the NBA. Offensively, his arsenal of post moves isn’t large, but what he does have is very effective.
  • Andrew Wiggins was scorching hot from downtown, hitting five of eight three-point attempts en route to an efficient 21 points on 13 field goal attempts. Hopefully, this is the type of display Wiggins needed to break out of his slump.
  • Minnesota has to do something about this get-up-and-coast mantra that has taken over the team not just this season, but the past two seasons. Maybe it’s the minutes distribution. Maybe it’s the change in philosophy from the first to second half. I don’t know. But the Wolves repeatedly let teams hang around that should have been put away long ago, just like the Nuggets on Wednesday night.
  • Still, the Wolves played a great first half, which should not be ignored. Especially on the offensive end, where they put up a season high 71 points. They were shooting lights out from the perimeter to start the game, but also featured some good ball movement throughout.
  • The NBA is awesome, it really is. But it’s not perfect. The acting and flopping players do to get calls is hideous and difficult to watch. What’s worse — it actually works on NBA officials. Look no further than Nikola Jokic tonight. Incredible acting performance — and it almost handed Denver a win.