So it’s a torn meniscus and likely surgery for Jimmy Butler, after he crumpled to the court Friday night:
That news could’ve been a lot worse. A torn ACL would’ve ended Butler’s season, and recovery probably would’ve eaten into his 2018-19 season. An injury that makes it possible for Butler to return to the court before the start of the playoffs is survivable, and therefore qualifies as a lucky break. And then there’s this: the Timberwolves play fewer games (21) after the All-Star break than any other team in the NBA, and one of the weeks Butler will miss—the one that begins on Sunday, March 4 and ends on Saturday, March 10—features exactly one game on Minnesota’s schedule, a Thursday home game against the Celtics.
But that doesn’t mean it’ll be smooth sailing: between March 1 and March 20 the Wolves play at Portland, at Utah, home against Boston, home against Golden State, at Washington, at San Antonio, home against Houston, and home against the Clippers, in that order. Every one of those teams is currently at least two games above .500, and three of them are looking hungrily up at Minnesota in the Western Conference standings, from more desperate positions.
The Wolves passed their first post-Butler-injury “test,” a convincing victory in a home game against the lowly and tanking Bulls on Saturday. Without Butler in the lineup, shot were fairly evenly distributed between Karl-Anthony Towns (22 points on 20 shots), Andrew Wiggins (23 points on 18 shots), and [gulp] Jeff Teague (25 points on 17 shots). More importantly, with no dominant wing scorer on the Bulls, Butler’s absence wasn’t felt so bad on the defensive end. Monday night the Wolves travel to face the lowly and tanking Kings, who will present exactly zero strengths the Wolves didn’t overcome against the Bulls.
But the Kings will be their last lowly and tanking opponent until they face the Knicks on March 23, after which their schedule turns soft. The challenge, then, is to emerge from that eight-game stretch in March with their place in the playoff pack relatively intact. At stake is a spot in the upper half of the West’s playoff bracket, and thus at least one playoff series with home-court advantage, but the Wolves still sit just 4.5 games up on the conference’s 10th seed. Defense will be the big challenge: against that murderer’s row of teams, Butler would normally be expected to do the heavy lifting defensively against all of the following: Damian Lillard and/or C.J. McCollum; Donovan Mitchell; Kyrie Irving; Steph Curry and/or Klay Thompson; Bradley Beal; James Harden; and Lou Williams. The Wolves will be scrambling to cover Butler’s absence against a who’s-who of alpha wing scorers.
The Western Conference is a fucking blender right now, but the Wolves banked a game Saturday, and have a chance to bank another one Monday night. March will provide a great chance to see how much of Butler’s competitive drive and defensive acumen rubbed off on his young teammates prior to the All-Star break. Whatever happens, it’ll be fascinating to watch.