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Tough Love From Jimmy Butler

How Butler uses criticism to get the most out of his teammates.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

To start the 2017-18 season, the Timberwolves were managing to win games, but the way they were doing it didn’t feel sustainable. Instead of playing connected defense and sharing the basketball on the other end, they were relying solely on individual offensive talent to sneak by in shootout contests. While most of us were just happy to be 7-3, then 10-5, and then 17-12, Wolves star guard Jimmy Butler was not.

Recapping a November 24th loss against the Miami Heat, Butler explained to reporters that "[The Wolves] haven't guarded anybody all year long [...] we've got to start guarding somebody, it's getting ridiculous and it's getting sad." These may seem like harsh words coming from the team's proverbial captain, but tough love is a vital part of what Butler brings to the table. And in the ensuing months, we've watched this team start to execute a dramatic defensive turnaround. That, in large part, is a result of Butler demanding the best from his teammates.

After Tuesday night’s 102-108 loss at The Amyway Center, home of the floundering Orlando Magic (13-31), Butler voiced a comparably irritated message to his embattled teammates through Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune.

One of the most endearing and surprising things about Jimmy Butler’s personality is the effortless charisma that is derived by his brute honesty. Despite knowing a thing or two about media backlash from his days in Chicago, Butler rarely relies on the filtered and guarded responses that most other professional athletes do. He tells the truth. Not only that, he often goes out of his way to say exactly what’s on his mind. He does this, at least in part, to communicate with his teammates.

The tone that Butler took on Tuesday was strikingly similar to the one we heard after the aforementioned game against the Heat. But now that the Wolves are, for the most part, starting to play effective basketball on both ends of the court, Butler doesn’t need to yell at his team about hustling back, or making second effort plays. No, now he is going to have to teach the young Wolves how to manage an 82 game season when every matchup counts.

For two and three years respectively, Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins had coasted into January with little on the line. Now they’re firmly planted as the Western Conference’s fourth seed, and certainly have their sights set on the third seeded Spurs. When your aspirations are that lofty, you can’t afford to bring anything less than maximum effort, regardless of your opponent. Butler’s measured, though emotional words to Jerry Zgoda are certainly a reflection of the urgency and intensity that he wishes to impart onto his team. Jimmy knows that each game is vital, and Wolves fans should feel confident in what he has shown us thus far: that he will get that message through to his teammates.

Despite the optimistic sentiment described above, losses like the one we watched in Orlando are starting to become an infuriating theme of the season. This Wolves team has proven an uncanny ability to rile up hope with a series of impressive, consecutive wins, only to let it down suddenly with a seemingly preventable loss. It was the fourth game of the season when the Wolves hosted the Indiana Pacers at Target Center—coming off dramatic wins against the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder that had confidence starting to roar around a team that was just 2-1—but that very next game, the Pacers laid a 130-107 beat down on them.

A few weeks later, following three consecutive wins against the Jazz, Spurs and Mavericks, the Wolves lost in dramatic fashion to the middling Detroit Pistons. Fast forward to December and after a five game winning streak against Western Conference opponents, the Wolves blew a 20 point lead to the Milwaukee Bucks. Then, less than one month later, yesterday’s loss to the Magic. Evidently, Butler had a reason to say what he did to Zgoda, and it will now be on the rest of the team to respond.

After a dominating home stand in which the Wolves swept five high quality teams with an average margin of victory of 17.8 points per game, players and followers alike expected the team to saunter through Orlando virtually unopposed. That didn’t happen, and while the loss was vexing, there is ample reason to be confident in Jimmy Butler’s ability to help his teammates through growing pains. His post-game remarks are one part of that process.

Eds. Note: Please give a warm welcome to our newest contributer here at Canis Hoopus, Charlie Johnson. We’re excited to have him on board.