After he helped the Timberwolves beat the Lakers last Thursday but before he conducted his postgame interview sessions, Jimmy Butler popped the cork on a bottle of red wine and had a small glass. The versatile wing was equal parts happy and relieved the Wolves had slugged out a 119-111 win so he could enjoy the All-Star break.
During the session, Butler touched upon his mind-set when the game is close with not much time left on the clock. Maybe the wine loosened his tongue, or maybe it was the loquacious Butler just being candid, because he didn't couch his answer.
"Shoot the ball," Butler said. "Shoot it. When all else fails — shoot it.
"The crazy part is my teammates expect me to do that or make the right play the majority of the time. The majority of the time, I think shooting it is the right thing. I don't know if that's good or bad."
That all depends on your perspective. Butler is the Wolves' unquestioned go-to guy in crunch time. Even if point guards Jeff Teague or Tyus Jones are on the floor, Butler likely will bring the ball up the floor and run the offense — and he's most likely to end up shooting it at the end of the possession.
The NBA tracks "clutch" statistics, which are statistics accumulated inside of five minutes in the fourth quarter or overtime in a game when the score is within five points.
Butler is third in the NBA in total clutch-time points with 123, behind LeBron James (138) and Kyrie Irving (137), but Butler's shooting percentage in clutch time is .385 (35-for-91) — 9.1 percentage points worse than his shooting percentage for the season (.476).
It's a significant dip from how Butler normally performs late in close games. With the Bulls the past two seasons he shot 45.3 percent in the clutch (86-for-190).
Butler isn't the only top-line player this season who isn't as efficient in clutch situations as he is at other times, but the 9.1 percent negative difference in his shooting percentage is 46th out of the top 50 players in total clutch points. Granted, a few good games can cause a big swing in the percentages, but his drop plays into the perception that perhaps Butler is trying to force the issue on offense or play his version of "hero ball" in the final minutes when the game usually changes.
"It's a different intensity level," guard Jamal Crawford said. "It's not for everybody. I've seen some guys who are not as comfortable as they are in the first couple quarters. I've seen guys who are very comfortable and they rise to the occasion. … He's very comfortable in that position. We're comfortable with him being in that position."
By comparison, James shoots 1.4 percentage points better in the clutch and Irving 1.1 percentage points worse. Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, 15th in total clutch points with 79, shoots 9.6 percentage points better in those moments.
Butler said in that time of the game, he tries to read what the defense is giving him. He said it isn't harder to find shots at that point of the game than other times. His and the team's success has been varied. The Wolves rank 14th in the league in clutch winning percentage (.531) with a 17-15 record in their 32 games that included clutch time.
"I think I can get my shot off at any point in time," Butler said. "It's just what shot am I going to take? What's the defense? How's the defense guarding me? A lot of times you do have to pass it. You have to trust your teammates, which I do. It's all about what the game is giving me."
Butler's 91 shots in clutch time are 39 more than Andrew Wiggins, who is second highest on the team with 52 attempts (he has made 46.2 percent of them, 2.4 percentage points better than his overall number).
What's notable is the small amount of shots Karl-Anthony Towns takes in clutch situations. Towns has taken 829 shots this season, 291 more than Teague. But in clutch situations, Towns has only has seven more shots than Teague (36 to 29). Of Towns' 36 shot attempts, 16 have been three-pointers, meaning Towns has only taken 20 two-pointers within the last five minutes of close games or overtimes all season.
Towns is shooting 54.6 percent for the season thanks in part to his ability to score around the basket. That number drops by over 15 percentage points (38.9) in the clutch.
Even though he isn't getting a lot of shots late in close games, Towns isn't complaining.
"I have full confidence when Jimmy has the ball, it's going to go in every time," Towns said. "I never worry about stuff like that. That's not even something that crosses my mind."
Towns said he just listens to what coach Tom Thibodeau has to say and is trying to be a good teammate in that time of the game.
"If we call a play for Jimmy, then we're going to do it to the best of our ability, make sure Jimmy has the easiest time getting a bucket," Towns said. "If he calls it for 'Wig,' we're going to try our best to get Wig as open as possible. If it's for me, then we do our best. We're just trying to make sure whoever gets the ball in those situations has the easiest time possible scoring the basketball."
Most of the time, it's for Butler, and it isn't always an easy bucket.
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