Wolves at Kings
9:00 pm CST
In the wake of Jimmy Butler’s knee injury, Wolves fans have started to recalibrate their expectations. Instead of focusing on what it would take to capture the Western Conference’s third seed, like for much of 2017-18, most have shifted to playing out hypothetical rest-of-season scenarios as we became accustomed to in years past.
Choruses of “well, if we can manage to win seven of our final 20 games we would finish 43-39, would that get us in?” have started to sound eerily similar to last season’s, “if we win 16 of our last 20, and the Blazers and Nuggets win less than nine, we’ll be the eight seed.”
A narrative that the Wolves would be utterly lost without Butler was widely accepted after two disastrous losses at the very beginning of the season. And though there is little doubt the team will regress, the extent to which that should happen remains unclear. But tonight they look to bring their record in games without him to 4-2 since November 1st. One of those wins, a 115-109 victory of the Eastern Conference leading Toronto Raptors, remains their most impressive of any so far this season.
With more than six months of Butler’s tutelage under their belt, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns will now take the mantle in an attempt to squash any preconceived notion about what this team is capable of. While it can be easy to convince yourself that the Wolves are in insurmountable trouble, it’s important to remember that even with Butler’s injury this remains a superior roster to the one we watched last year.
Notwithstanding a year of development from both both Towns and Wiggins; Jeff Teague gives the starting lineup a scoring punch from the primary ball-handler that they desperately lacked, Taj Gibson provides defense and leadership at the starting power forward position, and for all of his highlights and potential, Zach LaVine was a negative player on the court. Swapping Rubio, LaVine, and Brandon Rush for Teague, Gibson, Jamal Crawford and a considerably more robust bench will make Towns and Wiggins’ job much easier.
But no matter how you perceive their updated outlook, there’s no avoiding that the Wolves need to win games like tonight. Of their remaining 19 contests, just seven come against teams that have already played themselves out of the postseason race. Three, on the other end, come against the Celtics, Rockets and Warriors, and the remaining nine will be played against opponents in the thick of the playoff hunt.
When every game is this important, you have to beat a team like the Kings. And if they do that tonight, the Wolves will be an inspiring 2-0 since Butler’s injury. Though most will immediately point to inadequacy of opponents faced, this is a team that hasn’t been shy about losing to inferior competition in the very recent past.