Timberwolves, Nuggets ready for big division game

Jimmy Butler delivered for the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night, but the Denver Nuggets couldn’t find anyone to do the same in their loss to Oklahoma City.

So the teams have very different moods heading into their matchup in Denver on Wednesday night. It’s an important Northwest Division game for both teams. The standings are crowded and both squads have their sights set on reaching the playoffs.

Because it’s a home game for the Nuggets, a victory is more of a must. But it has been an up-and-down ride for them as they adjust to the loss of veteran forward Paul Millsap, who is out for a few months after surgery on his left wrist.

Millsap was Denver’s big offseason acquisition, and his veteran leadership and production down low were big factors in pursuing the free agent. The Nuggets could have used him Monday in the one-point loss at Oklahoma City and, if anything, Butler’s performance against Portland on Monday showed how big a go-to guy he is.

Butler, the Timberwolves’ major addition in the summer, shook off a bad back to score 37 points, including two free throws in the final seconds to give Minnesota the win. The Nuggets hope Butler’s back is too sore to play Wednesday, but he was able to play against the Trail Blazers despite it.

“I’m going to battle for (my team) as long as I can walk,” Butler told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “At the end of the day, I love this game and I always think … a kid from Tomball (Texas), a long time ago, if you had to tell him, ‘Your back will hurt but you still get to play in an NBA game,’ he’s jumping up at the opportunity every time. I’m just thinking of all of that, then I come in here and see my guys in this locker room getting ready — it’s an easy (decision to play).”

Stopping Butler will be one of the keys for Denver (16-14) to beat Minnesota, and it might fall to little-known Torrey Craig. The 27-year-old Craig has been impressive in his two games since being called up from the G-League on Saturday. He scored 15 points in the loss to the Thunder and has shown he can defend the perimeter.

He has drawn praise from Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who is hoping he sticks with the team.

“I’d love for him to stay. I’m a fan of his,” Malone told The Denver Post. “Torrey Craig is a guy that you feel, ‘OK, at least he’ll go out there with the right mind-set and try to make guys’ lives really difficult.’ But that’s a decision that we’ll make with the front office, because I understand there is a 45-day window (for two-way players) and you kind of have to be smart about it moving forward.”

Craig looks like he’ll stay for now and, considering Denver’s next three games — Minnesota at home followed by road games at Portland and Golden State — he’ll get a chance to prove he belongs with the Nuggets.

That starts with the Timberwolves (18-13), who are in first place in the Northwest Division. Denver can’t afford to let a game like this slip away, especially after faltering down the stretch against the Thunder.

“It’s no one’s fault, but I just think we had an opportunity to finish the game earlier,” center Nikola Jokic told The Denver Post. “We could have won with like three minutes to go, because we had the lead. We just needed to push a little bit.”