Tom Thibodeau wasn’t specific about when he knew Jimmy Butler would miss Saturday night’s game against the Toronto Raptors. But Andrew Wiggins stepped up in the first half, Karl-Anthony Towns carried them in the second half and the rest of the team pitched in to beat the Toronto Raptors, 115-109.
Butler did not participate in shootaround, and was considered a game-time decision with a sore right knee during media availability an hour and a half before the 8 p.m. tip.
“He doesn’t recall if it happened in a game, or it’s just sore,” said Thibodeau. “So we decided the best thing to do would be to just take a break.”
Last time he was out, the Wolves lost to the Indiana Pacers, 130-107 and the Detroit Pistons, 122-101 in back-to-back games. But that was earlier in the season, before Towns and Wiggins figured out Thibodeau’s system, and the bench players had solidified their roles.
This was “next man up,” and almost to a man they did.
“I thought Wigs started us off right with his aggressiveness in the first half, and then, of course, Karl being in foul trouble, that probably hurt us some,” Thibodeau said. “And then Karl, I thought in the second half, was phenomenal. And then our bench, they were terrific.”
Wiggins carried the Wolves in the first half, scoring 22 of his 29 points on 9-of-13 shooting. He posterized Jakob Poeltl twice, providing energy in a first half where the Raptors dominated most of the game and took a 62-54 lead into halftime.
He also finished with five rebounds and three assists.
“I thought he played hard all night, and we needed it, particularly with Jimmy out, Jamal [Crawford] out (with a left great toe sprain) and Karl in foul trouble, he carried this group,” said Thibodeau. “But those are the type of plays that he’s starting to make now. So it’s not only the scoring, but the rebounding.
“He also made a great pass against a double-team late in the game, and he’s reading defenses very well right now.”
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Towns got into foul trouble, picking up three early, and did not have a shot in the first half. But he immediately got to the line in the second half and finished with 22 points on 6-of-7 shooting. He was 8 of 9 from the charity stripe, and 2 for 2 from deep.
“It’s hard in those situations, to pick up the fouls the way he did,” said Thibodeau. “And usually what happens is you lose your rhythm in games, so I thought he started the third quarter with great aggressiveness and attacked the rim, and he made them make calls.
“Getting to the line 42 times (the Wolves were 32 of 42 from the free-throw line), I thought that was huge for us. I thought we did a good job of moving the ball to set up the drives. And that allowed us to get set better defensively in the second half.”
Outside of Jeff Teague, who was 2 for 11, the Wolves got contributions from just about anyone that set foot on the court. Nemanja Bjelica started and had eight points. Taj Gibson had 14. Gorgui Dieng and Tyus Jones each had nine. Shabazz Muhammad finished with seven.
But the bench player who stepped up the most was Marcus Georges-Hunt, an undrafted player out of Georgia Tech who was in the G League last year. He had 12 points in nearly 30 minutes played, and hit three of four key free throws to help seal the game.
“I was thinking, just stay relaxed,” he said. “Just act like nobody is in the gym. Go through my normal routine. Just shoot it.”
“One of the reasons why we kept him was because we felt we needed toughness, and he has that,” said Thibodeau. “I think with young guys, he played great last year in the G League. And oftentimes, the wing-type players get better every year, and he’s done that.”
In short, the reason the Wolves were able to win without Butler — unlike when they got crushed without him in October — is because everyone stepped up in his absence. Wiggins and Towns did the heavy lifting, but everyone else who played chipped in.
After all, it was Georges-Hunt, not the team’s two biggest stars, who was at the free throw line with the Wolves up 110-108 and 1:23 left on the clock who effectively put the Raptors away.
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