After a heartbreaker of a loss to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night dropped them down the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference, putting them on the brink of missing the playoffs for the 14th straight season, fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves could really use some good news this Friday. Luckily, Marc Stein of the New York Times is here to help:
Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler is planning to return to Minnesota’s lineup Friday night against the Los Angeles Lakers to launch his comeback from February knee surgery, according to two people familiar with Butler’s decision. […]
Butler is expected to go through one final test in Friday night’s pregame warm-ups in Los Angeles but has targeted this game for his full-fledged return after watching Thursday night’s loss at Denver from the bench in uniform.
While Butler was listed as doubtful, but active, on the Timberwolves’ injury report on Thursday, head coach Tom Thibodeau declined to discuss prior to the game whether or not he planned to put his All-Star shooting guard in the starting lineup, bring him off the bench, or even use him at all.
“Oh, he’s playing,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said before the game, according to Gina Mizell of the Denver Post. “Come on, man. He’s playing. I don’t care what the game notes say. Believe that if you want — I’ve got a bridge to sell you. The guy is playing. He knows what’s at stake.”
Butler didn’t strip off his warm-ups, though, staying parked on the bench … which must have been excruciating, considering the Wolves came up just a couple of key possessions short against a team chasing them for one of the West’s final playoff spots.
“Just taking everything into consideration, we just thought it was best to wait another day,” Thibodeau said after the game, according to Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.
Butler hasn’t suited up for the Wolves since tearing the meniscus in his right knee during the third quarter of Minnesota’s Feb. 23 matchup with the Houston Rockets, the team’s first game back from the All-Star break. When Butler went down, the Wolves were 36-26, sitting in the No. 4 spot in the Western Conference and vying for home-court advantage in the opening round of the postseason. Since his injury, though, Minnesota has stumbled, going 8-9 over its past 17 games to fall to the bottom of the bracket and the brink of disaster.
Before his injury, Butler had proven to be just what Thibodeau had hoped for when he swung a deal for his once-and-future iron man on the night of the 2017 NBA draft from the Chicago Bulls. The 28-year-old earned his fourth All-Star nod, averaging a team-high 22.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.9 steals in 37.1 minutes per game, shooting a career-best 47.3 percent from the floor and 35.6 percent from 3-point range. He led the young Wolves by word and deed, teaming with former Bulls teammate Taj Gibson to show Thibodeau’s new charges just what kind of edge and effort it would take to rise up out of the lottery and into the ranks of the sport’s top teams.
When Butler went down, the Wolves ranked seventh in the league in net rating (a measure of whether you outscore the opposition over the course of 100 possessions, or get outscored). Since he hit the shelf, they’re 19th out of 30 NBA teams, getting outscored by an average of one point-per-100. That undersells his impact, though.
According to Ben Falk’s numbers at Cleaning the Glass, the Wolves’ point differential with Butler in the lineup equates to what you’d expect from a 61-win team. When he’s off? They’ve performed like a 28-win bottom-feeder.
Given the obvious, glaring difference his presence makes for the Wolves on both ends of the court, especially late in close games, and the precarious predicament in which Minnesota finds itself as it tries to push for a postseason spot in the season’s dying days, you’d have understood it if Butler had pushed to come back as soon as he was cleared in Denver on Thursday. When you’re talking about a performer as valuable as Butler, though, discretion needs to be the better part of valor … even in the heat of a playoff chase.
“It’s really hard, but I’ve got to realize that at the end of the day, it’s my decision, my career,” Butler said on Thursday, according to Krawczynski. “So I have to listen to my body, go out there knowing I can go 100 percent, no matter for how many minutes it’s going to be for. I don’t want to favor anything, I want to know I can go out there and play.”
One day later, with the Wolves’ margin for error now all but erased, Butler’s now evidently ready to do just that … and not a moment too soon.
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