Jimmy Butler’s absence will certainly prove costly as the Timberwolves wind down the regular season in search of their first playoff appearance in 13 seasons. There’s no doubt about that.
One big area in which Butler’s absence will surely be felt is fourth quarter scoring. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has entrusted Butler with heavy responsibility at the end of close games all season long, whether it be initiating an offensive set or simply being asked to go get two points however possible.
Minnesota’s younger stars began to defer to Butler in clutch situations as the season as progressed. Now that Butler is out for the foreseeable future, one of either Karl-Anthony Towns or Andrew Wiggins will need to step up and grab the “closer” role.
Jace Frederick of the Pioneer Press pointed out that one of the key differences down the stretch in Thursday’s 108-99 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers was that Portland had its closer, while the Timberwolves didn’t.
Portland has its closer.. Minnesota doesn't.— jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) March 2, 2018
It's been about that simple
Damian Lillard entered the game with 6:30 remaining and the game in Minnesota’s favor at 85-84. He preceded to score 12 points in the final six and a half minutes to lead the Blazers on a 24-14 run from that point on.
Towns played elite basketball in the first 42 minutes of the game, collecting 34 points on an ultra-efficient 11-for-17 shooting. In the final six minutes, Towns missed both of his field goal attempts and did not score. Wiggins, meanwhile, went 2-for-5 in the last six minutes with his only points coming on garbage-time threes.
The Blazers trusted their guy in crunch time, and he delivered the goods. The Wolves did not have a proper response and suffered because of it.
The Timberwolves have a number of important games coming up that will severely impact the Western Conference playoff race. It’s conceivable that the Wolves are on the outside looking in at the playoff picture within a couple of weeks.
Finding someone to serve as a closer in Butler’s absence -- whether it’s Towns, Wiggins, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford or Cole Aldrich -- will be vital for the Wolves down the stretch if they plan on earning that elusive playoff berth.
Minnesota turns around quickly for another divisional battle at Utah on Friday. Will the Wolves find a closer overnight?
- Although the Wolves are technically alone in third place, they don’t control their own destiny for the spot since they have already lost more games than many teams behind them. Portland, San Antonio and New Orleans all have one fewer loss than the Wolves, but Minnesota’s .584 win percentage gives them the advantage — for now. Currently, seeds 3-7 in the West (Minnesota, Portland, San Antonio, New Orleans, Oklahoma City) are separated by one game, while No. 8 seed Denver is only three games back of Minnesota.
- Wiggins reached a level of defensive energy that he hasn’t reached in a long time tonight. He made several hustle plays and definitely played a role in Portland’s offensive struggles early in the game.
- Lillard and CJ McCollum were unfair on a few possessions tonight. That’s a stupid good backcourt.
- Making just 4 of 20 three-point attempts is not a winning recipe. However, the Wolves generally lose the three-point battle and make up for it in the turnover and free throw departments. Neither of those happened tonight. L.
- Minnesota can still earn a split of this back-to-back series with a win Friday night at Utah, which would be good enough for a passing grade as far as I’m concerned.
- Taj Gibson left the game with a hip contusion in the second half and did not return. Uh-oh.