Preview: Wolves at Nuggets
When Jimmy Butler went down with a torn meniscus in his knee, the Minnesota Timberwolves were in first place in the Northwest Division and on pace to make the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
Butler is Minnesota's leader, and without him a playoff spot that seemed almost assured has become uncertain. The Timberwolves are 8-8 since Butler was injured Feb. 23 but still hold the seventh seed in the Western Conference. They control their own postseason destiny, including two games against the Denver Nuggets, who are chasing one of those final two seeds. The Nuggets are one game behind the Timberwolves and the New Orleans Pelicans, who are tied for the seventh in the Western Conference.
The good news for Minnesota (44-34) is Butler has gone through a full practice and is nearing a return. The bad news is he probably won't be back for Thursday's game in Denver.
Even if he isn't playing, Butler's presence could make a difference. He has been to the postseason with Chicago and he knows what it takes, so he was blunt in his assessment of what the Timberwolves need right now.
"We just gotta get tougher," Butler told The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "We gotta play like some dogs with a sense of urgency. Teams just do whatever they want against us. I don't like it.
"Ain't no coach in the world that can make somebody play hard. Ain't no coach in the world that can make anybody want it. Right now, in the position we are ... we gotta realize that as a whole, we got to go out there and be the tougher team every single night, every single possession."
The Nuggets (43-35) seem to have grasped that mentality, and maybe just in time. After losing to Memphis and Miami -- the latter in double overtime -- to start a recent seven-game road trip they have started to play harder.
They rallied in Oklahoma City on Friday night and at home against Milwaukee on Sunday, wiping out late deficits in both games and winning in overtime. They didn't need an extra period to beat a hot Indiana team on Tuesday, so there are indications they have found the right sense of urgency.
"We can't worry about what other teams are doing," said Wilson Chandler, who is using a mask to protect a nasal fracture. "We have to keep winning, keep playing for one another and doing the right things."
Denver has gone 5-4 since guard Gary Harris went down with a right knee sprain by getting heavy production from Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Paul Millsap. Jokic, who had 30 points, seven assists and six rebounds against the Pacers, is averaging 25.1 points and 11.3 rebounds in the last 10 games.
He will pose a tough matchup for Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns, but the Timberwolves can't sleep on Murray. The point guard is averaging 19.2 points in the last 10 games and has picked up his scoring since Harris, the team's second-leading scorer, went down March 15.
Murray, in his second season and just 21, has emerged as a leader, and he is focused on making the playoffs. But he is not looking past Thursday.
"It's another game you've got to win," Murray said after Tuesday's win. "I'm not going to say it's another game you've got to win with an exclamation mark. Just got to go out there with the same energy and make sure everybody's locked in from the jump."
Butler may not play Thursday but he should be back when the teams meet on the final day of the season. A playoff spot could be on the line for one of them then.