As the Timberwolves made their run on the West’s leading Houston Rockets, the bench was as active as it’s ever been.
The Wolves were down by as many as 25 points and suddenly were within five. Gorgui Dieng had gotten into a skirmish with one of the NBA’s all-time great point guards. All of this happening while the Wolves are desperately trying to position themselves for the postseason.
Stuff was happening in every way imaginable, and all Jimmy Butler could do was watch.
It’s been like that for a while. Butler has been out since late February with a torn meniscus, but Sunday was the first time Butler had been seen in Minnesota in nearly a month.
Even the practices, film sessions and constant repetition Tom Thibodeau has become famous for. Butler misses all of it.
“At the time you get really pissed off you have to do it but now I miss it, because I’m not with my guys,” Butler said on Sunday.
And if words don’t do Butler’s desire to return justice, a report from Monday might do the trick.
There's only one @JimmyButler (Exhibit Infinity): Butler sat on the Wolves' bench last night for the first time since his recent injury and word is he wore a distinctly Jimmy item under his blazer and t-shirt … his game jersey
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) March 19, 2018
The Timberwolves aren’t the same without Butler, but it hasn’t all been bad.
“A guy like Jimmy, you don’t replace him individually, you have to do it collectively,” Thibodeau said soon after the injury announcement.
It’s been bumpy, but the Timberwolves are trying to win collectively.
Over the past nine games, the Timberwolves are 4-5 but have seen some vital progress from some key individual pieces over that stretch. Karl-Anthony Towns has played some of his best two-way basketball of the season, Nemanja Bjelica has emerged as starting-caliber that can play either forward position and Jeff Teague has never looked healthier.
Without this, the stretch without Butler might have looked less like an in-context success and more like what happened earlier in the season.
The first time Butler missed action — he missed two games due to an illness in late October — the Timberwolves couldn’t have looked more lost.
They fell in 20-plus point losses to Indiana and Detroit — in fairness, the former is currently the No. 3 seed in the East and a surprise team in the NBA — giving up over 120 points in each contest.
This time, it’s been a bit better. And Butler has noticed.
“I know my guys are going to stick this thing out and do what they’ve been doing to keep us in that race,” he said. “Whenever I come back, we’ll see what we have left in the tank.”
Butler’s right. Putting aside the losing record over this stretch, the difference between then and now is staggering. Keeping in mind the stupidly small sample size for the first stint, the good news remains that the Wolves are learning to adapt.
While the defensive rating is never particularly good with Butler out of the lineup, it hasn’t been terribly good with him healthy, either.
The team’s defensive rating with him on the floor this season is 105.3, which would be good enough for 11th in the league. When he’s off the floor, that number balloons to 114.7 — last by a comfortable margin.
The good news that’s come in his absence is the Wolves seem to have worked out a way to defend at a superior level even with him off the floor.
It’s still bad defense, but it’s an improvement from where it was.
But Butler has been clear in the past: he is not a numbers guy. He just knows his team has improved.
“I can tell that my guys want to win, that they’re out there competing home and away,” he said. “They know how important each and every game is, so that’s all you can ask for.”
And while every metric might suggest that his team is getting better — a statement he would likely agree with — his angst is clearly to get back out on the floor.
“Four to six weeks without basketball is an eternity for me,” Butler said. “That’s all anybody in this league has ever done. So when you have to wake up knowing you can’t compete; being out there with guys you’ve been with all year long. That’s the toughest part.”
This Sunday will mark the four-week period when Butler went down. If the four-to-six week diagnosis is correct, that means his time back on the floor might be coming up quickly.
Still, as Lucas Seehafer wrote after the diagnosis was announced, it’s incredibly hard to make a definite timeline on an injury like this. It’s possible that four weeks is all he’ll need. It’s also possible that it’ll take longer than six weeks.
What we do know is how mentally prepared Butler is heading down the stretch. The Timberwolves are the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference heading into Tuesday’s game against the No. 10-seeded Los Angeles Clippers. A loss wouldn’t take them out of the final slot, but it would continue to hurt their chances.
They’ve now played a number of games without Butler this season, and they’ve looked progressively better as they’ve figured out their temporary post-Butler identity.
But just like any player of his caliber, the wait to return to the floor feels longer for them than it does for anyone watching. But it was clear to everyone in the media room Sunday that Butler feels good about his recovery, his progress and his inevitable return to the court.
“I know I’ll be back sooner rather than later.”
He said he’d be back by the postseason, a time Timberwolves fans haven’t seen since Butler was barely a teenager. It would be as welcome a sight as seeing Butler back in a Wolves uniform.
Not in a t-shirt, a blazer and a uniform being secretly worn underneath.
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