Preview: Wolves vs. Thunder
MINNEAPOLIS -- Just five games into the season, the Minnesota Timberwolves are quickly learning how valuable newcomer Jimmy Butler is to their success.
While Butler sat out consecutive games because of an upper-respiratory infection, Minnesota endured blowout losses on back-to-back nights.
Even though Butler wasn't scoring at a high rate, he helped the Timberwolves win two of their first three games, including a buzzer-beating win in Oklahoma City on Sunday.
Butler could return Friday as the Minnesota and the Thunder meet again at the Target Center.
"Things can change very quickly in this league, from going good to going very poorly," Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said after Minnesota's 122-101 loss at Detroit on Wednesday. "It could also change it back very quickly. You have to come with an edge every night. If you don't, you're going to get knocked on your butt."
Oklahoma City bounced back from allowing a game-winning 3-pointer by Minnesota's Andrew Wiggins to post a 114-96 win over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday. Like the Wolves trying to incorporate offseason acquisitions Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford, the Thunder are trying to come together after adding Carmelo Anthony and Paul George.
Though the Thunder are known for their offensive exploits, defense played a big part in the Wednesday win. Oklahoma City held Indiana to 33.7 percent shooting and scored 25 points off turnovers.
"We took a positive step tonight, really on both ends of the floor," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "I really thought our guys gave great effort defensively, and I thought we had some really great moments offensively. We shared the ball -- 26 assists. We got a little bit stagnant in periods, but overall, I really liked the way we were trying to move the ball to one another. Just another step forward."
The first game this season between the teams provided plenty of highlights as Minnesota won on Wiggins' dramatic shot from near half-court.
Anthony had just given Oklahoma City the lead with a 3-pointer.
"There's going to be a familiarity with their team and our team. Can we come out and do the things better in this game than we did the first time we played?" Donovan told the team's website. "You're just looking for that consistency level each and every game to become more and more consistent at the things you're trying to get better at."
Wiggins scored a team-high 27 points in the first matchup, and teammate Karl-Anthony Towns had 27 points and 12 rebounds. Butler added 15 points, six rebounds and six assists.
Early in his first season with Minnesota, Butler has deferred some of the scoring load to Wiggins and Towns but still serves as a stabilizing factor on the court.
"Of course, we miss Jimmy," Gibson told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Of course, we're going to need Jimmy to win games. But we have more than enough to get the job done.
"I've been in this league a long time. I've won games with less than the talent we have in here. It's all about believing and coming together. We're still a young group. We're still trying to work the kinks out. But we'll get there. I promise we'll get there."
The adjustment with the Thunder has been Westbrook learning to play with Anthony and George.
Westbrook is averaging just 21.5 points per game, which would be his lowest mark since his second season in the NBA. Even so, Westbrook is coming off second triple-double of the season, as he produced 28 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds in the win against Indiana.
Westbrook had 31 points, 10 assists and five rebounds against Minnesota in the previous game. he has taken 42 shots the past two games after he had 22 attempts in the first two games of the season.
"We came here for you," Anthony told the team's website of his encouragement to Westbrook early on. "We came here because we believe in what you can do and what you can bring to the game. We don't want you to stop doing that. We want you to be that player and be that person. We'll fit in.
"We'll do a great job of fitting in around him. He's taking that advice."