When Timberwolves guards Jimmy Butler and Jamal Crawford were both late scratches when the Wolves faced the Raptors last week, my first strange thought was that they had strategically picked a point in the season to both get some rest and put more responsibility on Karl-Anthony Towns and especially Andrew Wiggins to carry the team.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau added to the mystery by being evasive when asked about Butler’s knee injury, saying “he may have” when asked by reporters if Butler had an MRI performed. Butler was deemed to not be walking with a limp after the Raptors game.
But while that makes a certain amount of psychological sense and perhaps even strategic sense, it is more the stuff of conspiracy theories than anything.
Crawford is a durable veteran who played all 82 games last season and has been a key contributor here. Butler has a reputation for being as competitive as they come. Crawford returned after missing two games with his toe injury. Butler — who is in the top five in average minutes played per game this season in the NBA — has now missed four in a row.
If we take both injuries at face value as legitimate — and again, unless we are reading too deeply into things there’s no reason not to — the next question is this: How worried should we be about Butler’s knee?
In the short-term, the absence of Butler and Crawford was actually a boon for the Timberwolves. Wiggins was sensational against the Raptors in a huge win, and he was even better in another good win against the improving Clippers. If Thibodeau had hoped other players, particularly Wiggins, would step up to fill the void left by Butler and Crawford, those games validated those hopes and proved the Wolves — who were blown out twice earlier this year in games Butler missed — could win without their new star.
The last two games, though, have been a much different story. Minnesota gave up 43 points in the third quarter of a 123-114 loss at Portland, and then had to play Golden State on a back-to-back, losing 126-113 in a game that never felt in doubt. The Wolves easily could have lost both of those tough games even with Butler healthy, but his absence is certainly being felt.
Even in those two wins over the Raptors (115-109) and Clippers (126-118) the Wolves had defensive lapses. Their defensive rating in the last four games, with Butler out, is 119.4 — second-to-last in the NBA during that span behind only the Knicks. Considering the Wolves with Butler had a recent stretch where they held seven consecutive opponents under 100 points, that’s a big lapse.
The good news is Butler doesn’t seem too far off from returning. He at least warmed up before the Golden State game before deciding he couldn’t go. And the Wolves, who are in the overall midst of a tough stretch of games, get a little reprieve in short-term with their next two games against the Nets (18-30) at Target Center and on the road against the Hawks (14-33). Even if Butler shut it down until the all-star break — the Wolves have 10 more games, several winnable, until then — the Wolves should be OK.
Beyond that, though, it’s pretty obvious that any hopes the Wolves have of not just making the playoffs but getting a favorable seed and advancing hinge largely on Butler.
Long story short: Until Butler is back, the knee is a reason to worry.