SAN ANTONIO — It wasn’t exactly leading the benchwarmers to victory over the starters in a scrimmage, but Jimmy Butler — even in a somewhat rusty form — again illustrated his value to the Timberwolves in their season-opening 112-108 loss against the Spurs on Wednesday.
Down eight points and looking dead in the water with about three and a half minutes to play, Minnesota found itself back in the game largely on the strength of Butler’s playmaking down the stretch. The four-time All-Star, who requested a trade and had a headline-grabbing outburst at a recent practice, put the team on his back after subbing in and either scoring or assisting on 11 of the team’s final 14 points.
Butler, who re-entered the game facing a 102-94 deficit, stunned the crowd by tying it at 108 by hitting a corner 3-pointer with just under 43 seconds left. DeMar DeRozan, a close friend of Butler’s, would eventually have the last laugh in his first game as a Spur, hitting the final basket on the ensuing possession and then icing it with free throws.
But all things considered, Butler said he was pleased with his showing and his team’s. He fought through fatigue and what he called a numb right arm (he said DeRozan hit his elbow late in the game) to finish with 23 points on 9-of-23 shooting — a performance that saw fits and starts due the abbreviated stretches Butler was forced to play in his first game action since last postseason.
“It’s just timing — getting your legs underneath you,” said Butler, who played 32 minutes. “I’ll be OK really soon. We take the best things from this — and that’s our energy and how hard we played for 48 minutes. We’ll take that every time.”
That the team — from coach Tom Thibodeau on down — seemed encouraged in the losing effort was noteworthy. Going into it, hardly anyone knew what to expect because of how poorly the turmoil-filled preseason had played out. The Wolves went 1-4 during the exhibition ledger, surrendering an NBA-worst 112.8 points per 100 possessions on defense.
There is still plenty to iron out, to be sure. Center Karl-Anthony Towns, for instance, fouled out in only 22 minutes, and finished seventh on his team with only six shot attempts, a less-than-stellar line for someone who just recently signed a five-year, $190-million extension. His foul trouble hurt the Wolves in the sense that the Spurs grabbed a whopping 19 offensive rebounds.
Jimmy Butler says he’s going to figure out how to win while on the Timberwolves, and nothing else matters on the court besides competing.
“We played really, really well. The intensity was there. Sometimes you deserve the win, and the basketball gods don’t give it to you. And that’s fine,” Towns said. “But if we can play like this for 82 straight games, I think we have a really good chance.”
Butler, when asked whether he felt he’d be with the Timberwolves for the next 81 games, smiled briefly.
“I got 81 games, baby. That’s all that matters. We gotta lock in on today, what tomorrow brings, and see where we’re at,” he said. “If that comes to be, that comes to be; there’s nothing I can do about it. But in the meantime, I gotta figure out a way to help us win some games.”