Nemanja Bjelica got the starting nod at the small forward position in the place of Butler, as the Wolves trotted out their “big” lineup with Karl-Anthony Towns, Taj Gibson, and Bjelica lining up in the frontcourt.
Of course, this was also the homecoming night for the former Wolves that were traded so that the Wolves were able to get Jimmy. Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn are starting now for the Bulls, a team that has fully embraced their youth movement (aka tanking), which is familiar territory for LaVine and Dunn at this point.
As for the game itself, the end result looks a lot better than the journey it took to get there. While the Wolves won by almost twenty points, the game was still in question through the first three quarters.
The Wolves took a lead in the first quarter, 31-24, and it looked as if somehow playing the Houston Rockets had rubbed a bit of Moreyball into the team’s DNA, as the Wolves barely took any shots that were not three-pointers or in the paint.
The 2nd and 3rd quarters were particularly rough. In the second quarter, the Wolves got killed 38-29. The defense looked all out of sorts and the Bulls were able to get baskets at ease in transition and around the hoop. LaVine did not display his traditional long-range shooting skills, going 0-4 from downtown, but he was able to get to the rim and flashed some solid passing skills, particularly in the pick-and-roll with a few nice pocket passes. LaVine finished with 21 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds.
But the Wolves were able to put up their own offensive display, particularly from Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins. With Butler out, it was likely those two would be receiving a ton more offensive creation duties. Wiggins has looked ill-fitted for the third-banana role all season, so this final stretch of the regular season is a good barometer of what the (now 23-year-old) young star can do.
Wiggins, overall, had a solid game. He put up 23 points and added in his customary couple of rebounds and assists. He actually had a few nice cross-court passes to Jeff Teague for open threes, but overall his ability to find teammates remains limited. He was open to letting it fly from deep, pulling the trigger on six three-point attempts and hitting two.
Jeff Teague was the best version of himself tonight. Aggressive, able to create his own shot, and unafraid to shoot threes. Teague took advantage of the extremely young backcourt that the Bulls are trotting out and was able to create a ton of offense by himself. He finished with a game-leading 25 points, along with 7 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 steals, while shooting 3 of 8 from beyond the arc and 6 of 7 from the free-throw line.
Karl-Anthony Towns did not have a good first half and looked to be trying to do too much, which is usually when he gets into trouble. He tried to force a few shots over Lauri Markannen in the first quarter, then took a bunch of corner threes that could not find their way through the hoop. However, he got re-engaged later, partially with a block against LaVine, and still managed to get his customary double-double with 22 points and 13 boards.
Taj Gibson was absolutely stellar, which has become a bit of a norm. He got a ton of easy buckets on little hook shots near the hoop when he just seals off his defender. He had a few nice assists dumping the ball down to Towns over the top of the defense. Taj also absolutely shut down Markannen, who only made one of his eight shot attempts from the field. Without Jimmy, the Wolves are going to increasingly have to rely on the veteran presence to Taj. He seems up to the task.
From the bench, Jamal Crawford had one of his red-hot shooting games and hit 5 of 8 threes. The Wolves actually took 35 threes this game, well above their average of 22.3 per game, and hit 11 of them. Tyus Jones played some solid minutes and was instrumental in the early fourth-quarter spurt where the Wolves blew the game wide open.
However, this game made it absolutely clear the Wolves have a major depth problem with the loss of Jimmy. Outside of the garbage time minutes in the end, Thibs stuck to an 8-man rotation. Marcus Georges-Hunt remains glued to the bench and I don’t think we are going to see a comeback tour from Shabazz Muhammad at this point.
We’ve been harping on the Wolves lack of wing-depth all year long and now the chickens have come home to roost. The Wolves just do not have a lot of options to match up with other teams right now. Obviously, every team in the NBA would suffer extreme consequences if their best player became injured. It is hard to imagine most teams surviving in a competitive playoff race without their stars.
But at this point, the Wolves have two options at the wing and they went back-and-forth all game with middling results. They can bring in Crawford next to Wiggins, bumping Wiggins to small forward. Offensively, this seems great, but a backcourt of Crawford and Teague, with Wiggins at the 3, is going to be a sieve. The other option is what the Wolves started out with, playing Bjelica at the 3, which moves Wiggins to the 2. However, Bjelica is just not going to adequately match up against every small forward in the NBA. He can play some spot minutes there, but it is tough to imagine him putting up positive numbers there long term. He is just playing out of position.
I’m not sure what the Wolves can do other than wait out the buy-out market at this point. The Wolves may have the three-seed, as well as a victory tonight, but the road ahead is fraught with challenges. For tonight, let’s just be happy that the Wolves gave Jimmy Butler a reason to celebrate while he goes through this difficult process.