Jim Souhan
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Athletes used to refer to being in “the zone.’’ Jimmy Butler calls it “getting lost in the game” — becoming so intent on every possession that the joy of competing transports him to a higher plane. It’s Zen with a crossover.

Butler lost himself in a game Wednesday at Target Center, willing the persistently uneven Timberwolves to their fifth consecutive victory. He scored 39 points, many of them with the game on the line and 10 Nuggets retinas aimed at him.

Thursday night in Milwaukee, Butler merely scored 20 points with seven assists, five rebounds and two steals, and the Wolves lost to the Bucks 102-96.

Butler has played in 34 games as a Wolf. He quickly is establishing himself as the second-best player and best closer in franchise history. If he continues to perform at this level, he will become one of the greatest acquisitions in the history of Minnesota sports.

During the Wolves’ past two home games, fans began chanting “M-V-P” as he shot free throws. That’s not a reality-based view in a league featuring LeBron James, James Harden and Kevin Durant, but it’s closer to the truth than anyone could have guessed three months ago.

In Butler’s first 21 games as a Wolf, he did not score 30 points in a game. In his past 13 games, he’s scored 30 or more six times. During the Wolves’ recent five-game winning streak, Butler averaged 31.2 points on 53.7 percent shooting.

Kevin Garnett elevated the Wolves with fierce defense and rebounding, quality shooting, unselfishness and hustle. In 2003-2004, he averaged 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds and five assists while dominating on defense.

As a Wolf, Butler is averaging 21, six and five (rounding out his stats).

If Butler has an advantage over Garnett it is that basketball is a situational game, and in clutch situations Butler can take the ball, start the possession, attack the defense, and make a winning play, whether that means hitting a three-pointer, driving and finishing, drawing a foul or passing.

Statistically, Garnett benefited from being an athletic 7-footer who often played near the rim. A point-blank tip-in would give him two points and a rebound. Butler has to work harder for his stats.

ESPN once listed Garnett as the 21st-best player in league history. Kevin Love accumulated points and rebounds rapidly enough, for long enough, to become the second-most accomplished player in franchise history.

But Love did not lead or play defense as well as Butler.

Who else in Wolves history will rank ahead of Butler if he continues to play this way for multiple years in Minnesota?

Sam Cassell produced one good season. Same for Latrell Sprewell. Tom Gugliotta, Al Jefferson and Wally Szczerbiak were lesser versions of Love — statistical producers who didn’t lead or defend as well as Butler.

Imagine this Wolves team without him. They are on pace to win about 50 games this season. Last year, they won 31, even as Karl-Anthony Towns became an historically proficient young player, Andrew Wiggins moved toward a maximum contract and Ricky Rubio continued to endear himself to his loyalists.

Without Butler, this team would lack clutch scoring, a defensive stopper and perimeter rebounding.

And leadership, which is difficult to define in many contexts but is obvious when it comes from Butler. He leads by playing hard on both ends and by repeatedly reminding teammates — to their faces, and in interviews — that they aren’t playing hard or well enough.

“I love to win,” Butler said recently. “It’s fun to play a little defense, if you ask me.”

Towns and Wiggins only occasionally play effective defense, although Towns has improved of late.

Both were taken with the first pick in the draft and possess the talent to be great. Butler, the 30th pick in 2011, averaged 2.6 points and 8.5 minutes per game as a rookie.

He wasn’t “developed,” or nurtured. He earned his every moment on court, demonstrating that excellence — even in a league filled winners of the DNA lottery — is more choice than birthright.

Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib jsouhan@startribune.com