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Timberwolves at Lakers: The Big Stage

The Timberwolves have struggled to step up in key games recently. They get another chance in Los Angeles tonight as Jimmy Butler returns to the lineup.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the past couple of weeks, there’s been a lot of discussion about the importance of this month’s games for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Minnesota hosted Utah on Easter Sunday in what was deemed then as the most important game in the franchise’s last 13 years. In an unfathomably crowded Western Conference, both Utah and Minnesota were desperate for a win in a game where multiple playoff seeds were at stake.

The Wolves were thoroughly outplayed by the hungry and energetic Jazz. At Target Center. In front of a sellout Minnesota crowd. It was never close. The Jazz, lead by former Wolf Ricky Rubio, played like a team grasping at its last playoff hopes. The Wolves, on the other hand, played with little sense of urgency and it showed on the scoreboard.

Minnesota got another crack at a “most important game in the franchise’s last 13 years” game Thursday night in Denver. Minnesota entered the night one game ahead of Denver and in the seventh seed. The Timberwolves were outplayed, again, and the Nuggets brought themselves even with the Wolves in the playoff race (though Minnesota owns the tiebreaker for now).

The Timberwolves have not responded well to the big stage down the stretch. Since Minnesota earned two monster wins against Golden State and Washington (March 11 and March 13), the Wolves are 4-6 and have been outscored by 42 points. For whatever reason, Minnesota has had difficulty closing out games as each one has mattered more to the playoff picture.

Jimmy Butler’s likely return to the lineup tonight should provide a healthy boost for the Timberwolves tonight in Los Angeles. Since Feb. 23 (the date Butler sustained his knee injury), the Timberwolves are 8-10 and have fallen five spots in the Western Conference playoff picture. Minnesota was 36-25 prior to Butler’s absence.

Butler posted on Instagram earlier on Friday with a caption that hints at a return against the Lakers.

Butler has been a go-to player in the big stage for years now dating back to his days as a Chicago Bull. He has the alpha mindset required to be a crunch-time gamer. There’s a reason Butler has a usage percentage over 41 percent in crunch time — head coach Tom Thibodeau has seen Butler elevate his play on the big stage hundreds of times.

Minnesota has lacked a go-to closer since Butler went down. Karl-Anthony Towns has flashed. Jamal Crawford has flashed. Jeff Teague has flashed. Andrew Wiggins has flashed. But it’s been inconsistent, and it feels like the team was lost late in games without Butler’s presence on the court.

Butler is back now. Minnesota has three games remaining — on the road against the 34-44 Los Angeles Lakers and then home matchups against the 21-57 Memphis Grizzlies and those pesky Nuggets. To ensure a playoff berth, Minnesota will need to win all three.

Butler’s presence certainly helps, but it will take a better response on the big stage from the rest of the team to clinch that playoff berth. Once again, tonight’s game holds the title as most important in the franchise’s last 13 years. The last two results have not been pretty — let’s hope the third time’s the charm.

Expected Starting Lineups


PG - Jeff Teague

SG - Jimmy Butler

SF - Andrew Wiggins

PF - Taj Gibson

C - Karl-Anthony Towns

Injuries: Derrick Rose (ankle) and Jeff Teague (knee) are probable. Jimmy Butler (knee) is questionable. Justin Patton (illness) is out.


PG - Alex Caruso

SG - Kyle Kuzma

SF - Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

PF - Julius Randle

C - Brook Lopez

Injuries: Lonzo Ball (knee), Brandon Ingram (concussion), Luol Deng (ankle) and Isaiah Thomas (hip) are out. Brook Lopez (back) is probable.

Four Factors

factor / Wolves / Lakers

eFG% / 52.4 / 51.9

FTR / .280 / .265

TOV% / 12.7 / 15.1

OREB% / 24.2 / 23.6

Clean sweep for the Wolves. What could go wrong?