Following the Timberwolves' 118-110 victory over Sacramento on Monday, they are 38-26 with 18 games left and in third place in the Western Conference standings.
Still, the loss of Jimmy Butler because of an injured knee, which he had surgery on at Mayo Clinic on Sunday to repair his meniscus, is going to hurt. The injury comes at an inopportune time, as the Wolves enter a grueling upcoming eight-game stretch that might decide if the Wolves are going to make the playoffs.
Entering Wednesday they were in third place, but the Wolves are only 3½ games up in the loss column on the ninth-place Nuggets.
"There are probably 10 teams that are going to fight it out for the eighth spot," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "We have been in fourth most of the season, but we have to compete the second half of the year."
When asked how the team will replace Butler's production, Thibodeau said it's got to be a group effort.
"The important thing is to understand we're not going to replace Jimmy with any one individual," he said. "We're going to have to do it collectively as a team. We can't underestimate how hard we have to play. Anytime you're shorthanded you have to play with great intensity on every possession. If we do that, we'll be able to win games.
"Everyone is capable of defending, everyone is capable of rebounding, everyone is capable of taking care of the ball. The strengths of the club have changed a little bit, so we want to play to our strengths and cover up our weaknesses. ... Our defense is something we have to continue to work on."
Over their next eight games the Wolves play at Portland, Utah, Washington, San Antonio and they play host to Boston, Golden State, Houston and the Clippers. Those clubs all have winning records.
The Wolves' strength of schedule for the rest of the season is the 11th toughest in the league, but the good news is San Antonio, the Clippers, Portland, New Orleans and Oklahoma City, all teams chasing them, have tougher remaining schedules.
The schedule gets much easier after this eight-game stretch, but if they go on a big losing streak, they could quickly fall out of playoff position.
Teammates step up
The player that many are looking at to step up in Butler's place is Andrew Wiggins.
In the two games with Butler out, Wiggins has averaged 22.5 points, 1.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. And over six games this season without Butler, Wiggins has averaged 24.7 points per game.
Thibodeau said he wants Wiggins to really elevate his defense in Butler's absence.
"He's going to have the challenge of guarding the toughest perimeter [player] playing every night, so we need his defense," Thibodeau said. "Just all-around play, make the right plays. The challenge is to do a little bit of everything."
The player who has really been performing above his early-season play is point guard Jeff Teague. Over his past 11 games Teague has averaged 15.5 points, 7.3 assists, 3.1 rebounds and only 2.2 turnovers per game.
"He has very quietly had a terrific season for us. He got nicked up for awhile where he missed some games in early January but just the way he has run the team, we have a lot of guys who can score so having the ability to balance it all out and bring the best out of everybody," Thibodeau said. "That's one thing Jeff has done his entire career.
"When you look at the offense and his ability to get in the paint and break people down has been a big factor. Everyone is in rhythm. We have an offense that is ranked third in the league; we score a lot of points."
The big change to the lineup with Butler out, at least in the first two contests, has been having Nemanja Bjelica start, and he has averaged 11.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 33.4 minutes per game as a starter this year.
"He's playing the small forward position, which gives us more length up front," Thibodeau said. "Belly at 6-11 and Taj [Gibson] has good length and of course Karl [-Anthony Towns] has good length. That also pushes Wig to the two [guard], and he has great size for that position as well, and Jeff Teague has good size for a point guard. Hopefully we can take advantage of that."
Towns will be key
With Butler out, the Wolves' other All-Star, Towns, will have to make a big jump. Thibodeau talked about how important his first All-Star appearance was to building that confidence.
"I think him being in that game shows he belongs, but I'm sure there are things and conversations that you have [with other players], and also just watching and seeing how different players approach things and how they see things," he said. "You learn from that. Karl is a student of the game. He's trying to learn. I thought it was a great experience for him."
In the two recent wins without Butler, Towns averaged 24 points, 15 rebounds, three assist and 1.5 blocks.
On Monday, when he scored 26 points and had 17 rebounds, he recorded his league leading 54th double-double on the season.
Morrison hit Twins
The Twins front office got a good look last season at Logan Morrison, the former Tampa Bay Ray who they signed as a free agent.
In five games against the Twins in 2017, he hit .389 with three home runs, five RBI and six runs scored. At Target Field, Morrison hit .333 with two home runs, three RBI and four runs scored in only 16 plate appearances.
Jake Odorizzi, who played with Morrison last season in Tampa Bay and came to the Twins via a trade, said about the slugger, "You're getting a guy with a lot of offensive potential. When he's healthy, he's a 40-homer guy. There's not too many of those guys sitting around on the couch at the end of February."
General Manager Thad Lavine talked about how unique it is at this point in spring training to still be able to sign a hitter of Morrison's caliber.
"We had gotten a lot of calls throughout the course of the offseason from agents who think their player could come in and be just that: someone who could hit four through six in your lineup and help support some of the younger players we have coming up through the system," he said. "Usually at this time in spring training, you're focused a little bit more internally and having conversations with your player development guys, your scouts, getting to know the players who are competing for the big league roles. This spring it has been the phone tethered to the ear morning, noon and night with conversations with agents."
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org