Butler, Wolves square off for first time since breakup
Just one week after the ouster of basketball boss Tom Thibodeau , the Timberwolves have enough of their own issues to work through. They did their best to downplay the significance of Tuesday’s game at Philadelphia that will pit them against Butler for the first time since the trade , but there are sure to be some raw emotions that night. The question is whether they’ll stay bottled up.
“Philly’s a really good team, one of the best teams in the East, so I feel like it’ll be a great battle,” Wolves guard Andrew Wiggins said Monday after practice, adding: “Jimmy, every game he plays hard. So it’s not like he’s going to play harder.”
The energy that Butler brought, of course, was never in doubt. The problem was how disruptive his presence became, after he requested a trade.
Thibodeau tried to hang on to his hand-picked locker-room leader as long as he could, until owner Glen Taylor pushed for a resolution that came Nov. 10 with the deal that sent him to the 76ers in a package that brought forwards Robert Covington and Dario Saric in return.
“I had a good relationship,” Wiggins said. “He was older so he tried to teach me a lot, both sides of the floor. I just learned a lot, his approach to the game and how he brought intensity and things to every game. He was a good teammate, very unselfish.”
Two weeks into training camp, Butler joined the Wolves for practice for the first time and caused quite a stir by, according to reports, trash-talking Thibodeau, general manager Scott Layden and center Karl-Anthony Towns during the full-court scrimmage. Then he conducted an off-site interview with ESPN to further voice his frustration with the state of the team.
“I feel like it wasn’t as crazy as everybody made it out to seem,” said Wiggins, who has taken on an expanded role on offense with Butler out of the picture. He added: “It was a competitive, intense practice. That was all.”
The Timberwolves (21-22) are 17-13 since the trade, entering play on Monday in 11th place in the Western Conference and 1 1/2 games off the cut for the playoffs. The Sixers (28-16) are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, 20-10 with Butler. He didn’t speak to reporters after their last game. The Sixers didn’t practice Monday.
“People are going to like me, great. People are going to dislike me, OK,” Butler said recently, in response to reports of some dissension between him and the Sixers about his role. “But I can’t control that. I can only control who I am, who I know I am, what the people around here think and know me to be and then try to be the best basketball player I can be on the court.”
For Wolves forward Taj Gibson, one of the other former Chicago Bulls players that Thibodeau acquired to help boost the team’s edge and experience, the game Tuesday will be the first time he has ever played against his close friend Butler in the NBA.
Whether the trade will serve each side for the best in the long run, well, that remains to be seen. There’s little debate that they were a good match last season, at least, with the four-time All-Star guard helping guide the Wolves to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
“In the short amount of time that he was here, we played some good basketball when we did get on the court together,” Gibson said. “We started winning. I feel they learned some things from him, and they’re going to use it in the future.”