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Minnesota Is Having a Moment

Jimmy Butler has helped push the Timberwolves to new heights. Now comes the big question: Can they stay there?

Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler high-five Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Karl-Anthony Towns was 9 years old the last time the Timberwolves carried this much clout. Andrew Wiggins was in fourth grade, Jimmy Butler was in the agonizing stage of puberty, and Jamal Crawford, ever ageless, was in his fourth season in the league.

A Sunday-evening win over Portland was the exclamation point on a month of franchise prosperity, sold-out crowds, and extended win streaks. The win against the Blazers marked only the second time in franchise history that a Timberwolves team had been perfect during a five-game homestead, and served as a fitting full-circle moment for this Wolves team. Minnesota has won 12 of its past 15 games, beginning with a December 18 victory against Portland, second best in the NBA.

Despite sticking to a slow-tempo offense — which has been criticized before, but does help with execution (Minnesota has the third-lowest turnover percentage this season) — Butler, Wiggins, and Towns led the Wolves to a league-best offensive rating (114.3) and the fourth-best defensive rating (103.9) in that span.

That sort of success escaped Minnesota from the start of what was expected to be a breakthrough season. Early on, Tom Thibodeau’s offensive schemes had been reduced to isolation and poor shot selection, and the defense was, kindly put, 2016–17 Blazersesque. But recently, the Wolves are the ones forcing other teams into those issues. LeBron had one of his worst outings ever with Butler defending him. In a 28-point Wolves win last week, James finished with his fewest points since 2007 (10), the worst single-game plus-minus of his career (minus-39), and his first loss in Minnesota since 2005. The Wolves have also beaten four current playoff teams during their five-game win streak, including the Thunder and a Pelicans team that usually carves up Minnesota’s interior defense.

Relatively small sample sizes make it tough to find definitive answers. Hot shooting can go cold. Long trips on the road might unravel into losing streaks. Bench contributions, like Crawford’s recent uptick in buckets, can be streaky. (Thibodeau’s second-unit situation is very chicken-or-egg to begin with: His reserves contribute few points on average, but play league-low minutes. Shabazz Muhammad’s scoring has fizzled out, and Nemanja Bjelica, who is in the game purely for shooting, adds just 5.6 points a game.) But the top gear that Minnesota has shown of late feels streak-proof. Now it just needs to prove that it is.

Jimmy Butler did not need exceptional young talent around him to get MVP chants — he received those in Chicago. But now that he’s surrounded by Towns and Wiggins, those cries have become legitimate.

Minnesota’s 2-guard is realistically outside of the running, of course, even with LeBron’s Cavaliers struggling and James Harden out with a hamstring injury. But by transforming into the Wolves’ clear leader, especially during the times when the Wolves most desperately need a basket, Butler has become a galvanizing force in Minnesota.

Now alongside two high-volume shooters after arriving in Minnesota via a draft-day trade, Butler initially spent his energy on becoming the facilitator the team had lacked. But since that December 18 win, he’s putting up an average of six more points (25.3) a game. Butler, who can turn defenders into moths on a light off the dribble, is also handling the ball more, leading to more assists for him and better ball movement overall.

Butler’s heavier load of late has increased even more in the fourth quarter, which is when past Minnesota teams have been known to collapse. That usually goes something like this: Wiggins commits to going iso (which works for him 22 percent of the time, per, and pulls up for a reckless, contested midrange jumper, or someone else on the team decides to hoist a contested shot.

Minnesota has also been more selective on drives and better with its spacing, leading to better efficiency when its players streak down the lane. Wiggins alone has nearly halved his attempts, which opens up more opportunities to cut inside. While Wiggins’s pure athleticism may seem like it’d be best utilized on bursts with the ball to the basket, the wing has made 80 percent of his shots off cuts this season, which is in the 95th percentile.

Wiggins and Towns led the Wolves to the league’s best success rate in the paint (51.5 percent) over this recent stretch, and both had the high-scoring performances to match. But for how intoxicating Wiggins’s dunks and Towns’s 3-pointers have been, the duo’s improvement on defense — which was previously the buzzkill after those highlights — has been the most remarkable and unexpected.

Whereas Towns had been, in a word, performative on defense — for example, his defensive stance screamed “I’m trying!” even though he was often in poor positioning for help defense — he’s been sliding over in the paint as a last line of defense and staying upright enough to host block-party outings, and he’s more aware of where he’s supposed to be. And Wiggins is trying. The popular diagnosis for Wiggins’s poor defense was a lack of effort, and his recent hustle is working. In their win over the Thunder last week, Wiggins locked down his assignment, holding Paul George to 5-for-14 shooting.

The defense, in general, performs with high intensity, snatching 9.1 steals on average. Three cheers for Thibodeau, who can hopefully reestablish his reputation as a defensive coach.

And speaking of Thibodeau, his personal adjustments factor into Minnesota’s recent success as well. Though his bench leaves much to be desired, there are no contributions from reserves without rotating them in. Thibodeau is known to ignore resting players even when his team has a safe lead; Wiggins, Towns, and Butler have played the first-, second-, and seventh-most total minutes in the NBA this season, respectively. Of all four-man combos in the league, the five lineups with the most time together are all Timberwolves. The worst came in early December when Thibodeau stuck with an eight-man rotation for five straight games. Despite all the wear and tear, the past 15 games have at least shown some improvement: Wiggins and Butler are on the court less, Gorgui Dieng and Crawford are subbed in more, and Taj Gibson’s pretty normal 33 minutes a game have stayed the same. (Tyus Jones, who started until Jeff Teague returned from injury three games ago, also saw a significant bump.)

Sharing minutes, sharing possessions, sharing the ball, and sharing accountability is the way Minnesota avoids flaming out come spring. The Wolves travel for five of their next six games and will have to face the Rockets, Raptors, red-hot Clippers, Blazers, and Warriors in that time. We’ll have more solid evidence after that stretch whether their recent success is sustainable. The test of time, in this case, is two weeks.