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Timberwolves vs. Bulls: Playoffs Start Now

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Jimmy Butler’s absence, for however long it may be, just made each remaining game that much more meaningful.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Chicago Bulls Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Bulls at Wolves
8:00 pm CST
FS North

It was a sickeningly familiar sight for Minnesota sports fans.

A face-of-the-franchise player in agony after suffering a non-contact knee injury.

Jimmy Butler is the most recent Minnesota star athlete to suffer a seemingly devastating knee injury after going down Friday night at Houston. MRI results have not been released yet, but it’s almost certain that Butler will mess at least a few weeks, if not the rest of the season.

It’s not really a secret that Butler has been Minnesota’s most valuable player this season. He currently ranks No. 3 in the NBA in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus stat and leads the Wolves in an number of significant statistical categories.

Minnesota is currently fourth in the Western Conference with a 36-26 record, which seems like terrific position to be in. However, the West is very congested after the top two seeds. Only 4.5 games separate the No. 3 and No. 10 seeds, and only three games separate Minnesota from the No. 9 seed.

The Timberwolves have had their most success with Butler on the floor and have struggled without him. Minnesota’s net rating with Butler is +8.1 while the net rating without Butler is -8.3 — which just so happens to be the biggest difference of any player in the NBA.

Those numbers suggest that Butler’s diagnosis could be the difference between the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 13 years and another disappointing campaign. Clearly, given the current layout of the West and Butler’s injury status, each and every remaining game carries more significance in landing a playoff berth. One could even say the playoffs begin now for Minnesota.

The final 20 games also present an opportunity for both Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to create a defining moment in their young careers. That window begins Saturday night against the Chicago Bulls.

Chicago is responsible for one of Minnesota’s worst losses this season back on Feb. 9. The Timberwolves have proven they are prone to playing down to competition, and Saturday presents a chance to get off on the right foot in correcting that issue.

Former Timberwolves Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn (and, technically, Lauri Markkanen) returns to Target Center for the first time since being traded to the Bulls last June. LaVine lit up the Wolves for 35 points in the previous matchup.

The most important stretch of the season begins Saturday night for the Wolves against an inferior opponent. Earning this win is essential to setting the tone for the rest of the season and ultimately earning that elusive playoff berth.

Expected Starting Lineups

Timberwolves

PG - Jeff Teague

SG - Andrew Wiggins

SF - Nemanja Bjelica

PF - Taj Gibson

C - Karl-Anthony Towns

Injuries: Jimmy Butler (knee) is OUT.

Bulls

PG - Kris Dunn

SG - Zach LaVine

SF - David Nwaba

PF - Lauri Markkanen

C - Cristiano Felicio

Four Factor

factor / Wolves (NBA Rank) / Bulls (NBA Rank)

eFG% / 52.5 (12) / 50.1 (28)

FTR / .282 (6) / .215 (29)

TOV% / 12.7 (3) / 13.4 (5)

OREB% / 24.9 (4) / 19.8 (27)

Prediction

I’m doing my best to stay optimistic despite the devastation of Butler’s injury. Minnesota is playing at home against an inferior team, so I feel inclined to pick the Wolves. However, if the Wolves can’t win this game, it could spark a slippery slope that results in the Timberwolves outside of the playoff picture sooner rather than later.

Timberwolves 109, Bulls 101