By Sloane Martin, WCCO Radio
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It was no secret that Tom Thibodeau — Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations — wanted to pick up Jimmy Butler.
His toughness and leadership, to go along with his talent, is what Thibodeau fell in love with when he coached Butler in Chicago.
Thibodeau insisted that his presence was exactly what the young Wolves needed to compete in a stacked western conference. To finish games, to play defense right, to set an example of how to battle — they needed Butler.
“That’s the time when he’s usually at his best,” Thibodeau said of Butler’s late-game play. “That’s the thing that you really respect from him. He always plays his best when his best is needed and I think that’s a result of his preparation. He studies, he prepares, he works and then when those situations come, it’s slow to him because he’s already prepared for it and he’s put the work into it. We always say the magic is in the work and it really is, and he’s a great example of that.”
It took a year longer than Thibodeau wanted, but Butler joined Minnesota in an offseason trade that sent Zach LaVine to Chicago, becoming the team’s marquee signing in an offseason praised by analysts. A top-end NBA talent was coming to Minnesota and the expectations for the team shot through the roof.
Butler walked right in knowing those expectations. The day he was introduced in June, he was paraded around to all the Twin Cities hot spots: Mall of America in front of hundreds of fans, Target Field with the Twins and U.S. Bank Stadium with the Vikings, plus countless interviews. The buzz was loud.
He has been a major factor in each game to start the season to help Minnesota get to 3-3, but Friday, in a 119-116 win over the talented Oklahoma City Thunder at home, the Wolves really learned that they need Butler.
Against reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, a guard built like He-Man who’s something resembling a rocket ship in the open floor, Butler made defensive stops down the stretch, while scoring to keep Minnesota ahead on several possessions. The man who set the NBA record for triple-doubles in a season was slowed by the man who has missed the last two games with a respiratory infection.
“[He] makes a big difference,” Thibodeau said. “That’s who he is. He plays both sides of the ball and that’s probably the most important thing. He guards everyone. Just having his presence … He’s a great leader. He does the right things on the floor.”
Butler’s illness might still be lingering a bit, but he said he felt great.
“Did you see my face? How did you think I felt? Matching up with Russ all that time, oh my God,” he said postgame.
In 38 minutes, Butler had 25 points, seven assists and five rebounds, and went 11-of-13 at the free-throw line. Thirteen of those points came in the fourth quarter, and he was plus-11 for the game.
“It’s a huge advantage when you have Jimmy on the floor,” said Karl-Anthony Towns. “A lot of mistakes that people make get covered up. Jimmy’s that great of a talent and does a lot of things for us on the court and obviously in the fourth quarter he’s a big guy.”
Towns’s and Jeff Teague’s performances can’t be overlooked. The center had 33 points and 19 rebounds, and the point guard finished with 17 points and 10 assists for his first double-double in Minnesota.
But in the last two games Butler sat due to illness, the Wolves lost to teams less talented than the Thunder by an average of 22 points, allowing 130 and 122 points, respectively. Butler’s presence and the leadership that Thibodeau praises, made a difference.
“That’s part of my role here to make sure everybody is doing the right thing,” Butler said. “Playing with energy on both ends of the floor. We have a really talented group of guys. When everybody is clicking like that and we’re executing, yeah we had some hiccups, but when everybody’s swinging the ball, moving the ball, playing team defense and team offense, we’re going to be all right.”
Thibodeau’s vision when they acquired Butler has been on display. The Wolves’ three wins this season have been by no more than three points.