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Sixers 118, Wolves 109: Return Of The Butler

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Jimmy Butler changed everything for the Wolves. Then everything kept changing as it always does.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Minnesota Timberwolves
I really loved Jimmy ... until I didn’t. I guess that’s probably true of many relationships.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — A season after Tom Thibodeau constantly preached how Jimmy Butler changed everything for the Wolves, everything indeed has changed.

You already know the details. Butler demanded to be traded, taking his talents to ESPN to embarrass Towns and Wiggins on national television because he no longer wanted to ball under the circumstances of #AllEyesNorth. Thibs could never let go of his prized basketball soldier — the same guy who completely compromised the season from the jump in the name of General Soreness and apathy. Thibs was eventually fired and those special moments in sports that make us feel a little bit more alive feel like an eternity ago. Maybe they weren’t as special as they once felt.

Fans astutely left their #23 aurora green jerseys at home this Statement Saturday as Butler made his return to an arena that once marveled at his talents, if only for a year.

“I love being the villain. Y’all didn’t know that about me. But you do now,” Butler said earlier this season. He also said he wanted to hear the boo’s, unsurprisingly for someone that welcomes confrontation and even seems to thrive off it. His wishes came true in his return.

Butler heard the angry fans from the jump — except in section 216 and 217 where an army of Sixers’ fans who traveled to the game made their presence felt with loud “Trust the Process” and “Let’s Go Sixers” and “DARIO! DARIO! DARIO!” chants that complemented an array of boos — and they persisted throughout on a night resembling the atmosphere of last season.

Every time Butler touched the ball, the raucous crowd was booming with boos. But, again, the Wolves came out sluggish in the first quarter as they’ve grown accustomed to and dug an early hole. Philadelphia’s 8-13 from three-point range in the first was the most threes by an opponent in a first quarter in franchise history (GREAT DEFENSE!). After allowing 68 points in the first half, Ryan Saunders implored his team to start switching everything to combat the onslaught of poorly contested (OK, let’s be honest here, most were straight up uncontested) treys.

“We started switching more in the second half and I think that helped us keep a body on a body,” said Saunders. “That was something I’ve wanted to try and we actually did that last night too in the second half. It didn’t hurt us inside with things. I like seeing that. They run a lot of catch and shoot actions too and we had guys start fighting (JJ) Redick more toward that fourth quarter where he wasn’t getting wide open, but a couple of those offensive rebounds and dagger threes really hurt us.”

In short, a night after shocking the Warriors in overtime, the Wolves didn’t have enough gas in the tank to beat a far superior Sixers squad that plays a style of basketball that consistently perplexes this team’s awful defense. Basically, any team that can drive and kick, make extra passes, and hit threes are liable to make them look foolish.

There are no limits to who can destroy them either. Jonah Bolden, for example, starting in place of Joel Embiid, hit 5-7 from deep on his way to 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 stocks. I can imagine a few people reading this might have no idea who Jonah Bolden even is, though he joins an incredibly long and depressing list of Fringe Players That Have Killed The Wolves.

An energetic crowd eager to give Butler an earful wasn’t enough to spark an obviously shorthanded and incredibly flawed — both skill-wise and systematically — Wolves’ team to another unexpected late-season win over an elite team. Butler was terrible shooting-wise (4-17) but added 13 boards and 5 assists. Ben Simmons basically was sleepwalking towards a triple-double all night, finishing with 20/11/9 and Tobias Harris added 25/7/4.

“You could feel, pick whatever mood you wanna call it, but you could just feel the vibe in the building with Jimmy returning and you know I thought our guys responded,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said.

“I think you give credit to Minnesota, I thought they played hard, they had a great win last night against Golden State, they backed it up with another you know I thought excellent performance tonight, it was a difficult win but I thought the crowd sort of set the table with the mood in the building, the vibe in the building.”

Andrew Wiggins recorded his sixth straight 20+ point game as the team seems to be doing whatever they can to get the most out of him, and perhaps restore some value. He scored a team-high 24 points on 9-18 shooting to go with 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 blocks. With 13 points on 6-8, Gorgui Dieng looked good for a second consecutive night. As is the case with Wiggins, helping restore G’s value is another bullet point on a seemingly never-ending list of things the franchise needs to do.

“It was a great atmosphere,” said Wiggins. “A lot of fans came out. Great game and for us, we were fired up just from the last game because they killed us the last game, so we tried to come back and tried to get revenge, but it didn’t work out in our favor. I still feel like we still played hard.”

Tyus Jones entered the night leading the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (6.14) and finished with six assists and zero turnovers. Jones also added nine points. Saunders went to Jerryd Bayless down the stretch, which proved to be an excellent choice for the pro-tanking crowd. (He was 2-11 from the field with 7 dimes.) Karl-Anthony Towns was frustrated most of the night, finishing with 21 points, 7 boards, 2 assists and 1 block in 31 minutes. He was clearly unhappy with the results in the locker room afterward. Annoyed Quiet Towns made an appearance.

A potential gem in Cam Reynolds recorded his second double-digit scoring contest going 3-5 from the field with 10 points. He had four rebounds and his jumper looks sharp with smooth, consistent mechanics. They might have found something here; another 3-and-D wing option off the bench is what every NBA team is constantly searching for.

The flashes from Reynolds, as well as the overall play of rookies Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, are promising, though unspectacular, aspects of what I’ve been calling A Season From Hell over the past month. More change is on the horizon, too, only a year after all of those pressers and media availabilities where Thibs would revert back to his favorite “[Jimmy’s] changed everything for us” default talking point, instead of hitching his wagon to the one player that mattered most.

“I’ve dealt with nothing but change so this is nothing new in my book,” Towns said when asked how difficult it has been dealing with tons of change, constantly trying to adjust to a new coach and different systems. Maybe that’s why he’s willing to publicly endorse Saunders as the full-time coach; KAT is simply sick and tired of change.

Butler’s inevitable return to a sea of boos was another painful reminder of the franchise’s instability and the directionless path they woefully stumble upon with ignorance. Change is inevitable in Wolvesdom, as it always is. Perhaps Glen Taylor will eventually realize this unrelenting league isn’t for him. That’s the single best change that could ever happen.