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Five Keys to the Timberwolves’ Stretch-Run without Jimmy Butler

A look at where the Wolves must excel while missing their all-NBA wing

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Following Jimmy Butler’s knee injury and a pair of emotional losses to the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz, the Wolves enjoy five days off in advance of Thursday’s matchup against the Boston Celtics. With their best season in over a decade teetering on the edge of danger, they anticipate a 16 game sprint to the playoffs that could still end in either ecstasy or catastrophe. The young Wolves are anything but naïve about their current situation:

While it may seem like a predicament from the outside, it’s also an opportunity for these rising stars. After several seasons confronting irrelevancy before the days even begin to get longer, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins have a chance to make a new name for themselves with Butler sidelined and expectations waning. Let’s dive into five keys that will be paramount to the Wolves success the rest of the way:

1 – Beating the Teams they should

Through 66 games, the Wolves have continued a troubling trend of losing to far inferior competition. Basketball is such a volatile game that even the league’s elite groups are going to ‘lay an egg’ once in a while, but the Wolves have turned happenstance into habit – especially in Eastern Conference matchups. They play every team from the East twice per season, and this year they’ve already lost to seven of it’s bottom eight teams at least once. In the West, they’ve faltered to the bottom two teams (the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns) once and twice respectively.

After their upcoming stretch of six tumultuous games that could very well push the Wolves outside of the playoff picture, they’ll finish the season with 10 seemingly manageable matchups. That final push will include fringe playoff competition in the Denver Nuggets (x2), Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers, but no team on that part of the schedule currently ranks higher than sixth in their conference. They’ll also play the surging Los Angeles Lakers, but the remaining five tests see the Wolves take on teams that are tanking: the New York Knicks, Grizzlies (x2), Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks.

To put this into context, if the Wolves lose every remaining game against post-season caliber competition, but defeat all of those teams out of the hunt, they would finish 44-38. 538’s CARMELO Projections currently have the Wolves finishing 47-35, sixth in the West. In order for them to reach that mark and setup a competitive first round series, it’s imperative that they win games against teams that would prefer to lose.

2 – Continued Health for the Remaining Starters

For much of 2017-18, Butler’s injury history loomed over the Wolves like a predator ready to pounce. But now that their worst-case scenario has come to fruition, we can only hope that fortunes will change.

Their four remaining opening night starters are all integral to the current team for different reasons. With Butler out, Jeff Teague has been able to increase his aggression, adding an offensive punch that the team needs; and without him, the Wolves are forced to deploy Tyus Jones and Aaron Brooks as their point-guard duo. Wiggins highlights a perimeter rotation that desperately lacks depth – beside him, the only natural wings on the roster are Jamal Crawford and Marcus Georges-Hunt. Taj Gibson remains the team’s defensive backbone and calming presence while Towns has become their best and most important player.

Wiggins, Gibson and Towns have played in each of the Wolves 66 games so far this season, Teague has been healthy for 55. Knock on wood, because the Wolves need these guys to stay on the floor.

3 – Wiggins and Teague’s Offensive Prowess

The Wolves have played 10 games this season without Butler: two blowout losses at the very beginning of the season, a 2-2 stretch in January when he was out with a sore right knee, and 2-2 since he went down most recently. That makes them 4-6 on the season without their key creator.

Sans Butler, there are almost 16 shots per game to be redistributed. While Towns is a key benefactor, Teague and Wiggins are forced to take-up the majority of ball-handling duties. Thus, the onus of the Wolves ability to keep pace offensively lies on their shoulders, and that has been demonstrated so far this season.

In six losses without Butler, Teague is averaging 15 points, 2.7 rebounds and 5 assists while Wiggins is posting 18.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2 assists. But over their four victories, Teague is putting up 20 points, 4.3 rebounds and 7.5 assists as Wiggins drops 28.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2 assists per game. It seems the Wolves success will continue to depend on their aptitude to score reliably and efficiently.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

4 – The Bench Holding its Own

Through much of the season, the Wolves have touted one of the league’s most productive starting units while concealing one of it’s worst benches by advanced statistics. Their starters – including Butler – have a net rating of +8.7, meaning they outscore opponents by nearly nine points per 100 possessions while on the floor together. And if you swap Butler for Nemanja Bjelica, as the Wolves have been forced to do, the starting lineup produces an even more potent net rating: +9.8.

For the sake of evaluation, we’ll include Wiggins alongside Crawford on the second unit because Shabazz Muhammad is no longer on the team (and didn’t really play when he was). Plus, that’s how Tom Thibodeau tends to operate in practice. That lineup (Jones, Crawford, Wiggins, Bjelica, Gorgui Dieng) is conceding 10.8 points per 100 possessions. So, even though Thibs’ preferred lineup remains more than capable of holding their own, the second unit must keep games competitive while the starters rest. If they don’t, the Wolves will fall behind into the beginning of the second and fourth quarters – when the backups tend to finish their rotations – and they’re not a team constructed to make gaudy comebacks.

5 – Karl-Anthony Towns

As he told Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune, mentioned above, Towns is working to “be ready for what is, for some of us – especially for me and Wigg – the biggest stretch of our career so far.” Towns has always had a talent for spewing PR-savvy one-liners, but this one seems to come from the heart. He knows what a momentous opportunity lays in front of him; with two and half seasons of award-winning NBA basketball under his belt he is just now playing games with meaningful implications for the first time.

From genuine disappointment after not being named to last year’s all-star game, to disingenuous insistence that he could carry the 2016-17 Wolves to success, Towns has always strived for more – to compete harder, to be better recognized, and to win. This is his chance to prove that he’s an all-star capable of carrying a winning team, even at the ripe age of 22. Over the next 16 games and into what would be their first post-season appearance since 2004, Towns can elevate himself into superstardom if he and the Wolves defy preconceived notions around what they’re capable of without Butler.

NBA: All Star Game-Team Stephen Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports