Perhaps no better example of the leadership he contributed to a long-languishing franchise trying to find its way came during a three-day stretch in mid-December.
With Butler playing through back spasms, the Timberwolves lost at home to a Phoenix Suns team that ultimately finished with the NBA’s worst record. Afterward, Butler was flat on the floor in the locker room, in enough discomfort that moving around was a difficult proposition.
Two nights later, Butler powered past the pain to score 37 points and carry the Wolves to victory over the Portland Trail Blazers , who finished third in the Western Conference this season.
“If you go out there and show them how hard you have to play in this league until the end on a constant basis,” Butler said then, cajoling his young teammates, “that’s when they follow suit.”
In case there was any lingering mystery about the 28-year-old Butler’s value to these Wolves, his absence while recovering from a meniscus injury in his right knee quelled them for good. They went 8-9 while he was out, nearly squandering their spot in the playoffs until reeling off three straight wins upon Butler’s return to end an NBA-most 14-year stretch of missing the postseason. Factoring in the six games he missed earlier to an illness and a sore knee, the Wolves were 10-13 without him.
“He’s changed everything for us,” said coach Tom Thibodeau, without a hint of hyperbole.
Butler pitched in 31 points on Wednesday in the win-and-get-in, lose-and-go-home game against the Denver Nuggets that gave the Wolves a taste of the playoffs. He played 42 minutes.
“He’s an animal,” fellow All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns said. “I don’t think anyone has ever thought anything else of him. He’s a cyborg from another place, built in the lab, and we’re very glad that we’ve got him.”
Thibodeau, who has full control of the roster as president of basketball operations, was fixated last summer on reuniting with Butler from their time together with the Chicago Bulls. Not only were the Wolves in the market for another scorer around their cornerstone Towns and young wingman Andrew Wiggins, they needed a lock-down defender who could take on the opponent’s best player with unwavering confidence. Plus, his mental toughness was a critical component in the overall attitude adjustment of a team transitioning from low-pressure losing seasons to heightened expectations under the no-nonsense Thibodeau.
“I wanted to go to a contender. I wanted to go somewhere where I was familiar with the coach, and being here was the perfect situation,” Butler said this week. “We have a young team. I don’t believe they know how good they are. I believe the city doesn’t know how good the team is. We can bring that excitement, not only to the team, but to the city.”
Butler ranked fourth in the NBA this season with a 6.06 real plus-minus rating. That advanced statistic attempts to assess a player’s on-court impact on team performance as measured by net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions, while also factoring in teammates, opponents and other variables. The only players ahead of him were Chris Paul, Steph Curry and James Harden.
As the Wolves approach the daunting assignment of a first-round matchup with Paul, Harden and the league-leading Houston Rockets, the intangible contribution Butler can make to the cause is as valuable as any. His experience in the playoffs, with 38 career games, and his tenacity on the court provide the kind of comfort food a team can rely on against an opponent that beat the Wolves handily in all four matchups in the regular season.
“You have to believe in your teammates. That’s why it’s good to have a coach like Thibs who comes in and gives you a strong talk, because he understands the reality of the game and the ups and downs of how the game goes,” Gibson said after practice Friday, before the team boarded a flight for Houston. “You’ve just got to go out there and fight.”