Five Timberwolves score at least 17 points as Minnesota wins first playoff game since 2004

ByTim MacMahon ESPN logo
Sunday, April 22, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jimmy Butler bluntly states that nobody cares if he's "nicked up," a term he picked up from coach Tom Thibodeau to downplay the significance of injuries. Butler isn't complaining, just telling it like it is, knowing that sympathy isn't available during the NBA playoffs.

It doesn't matter if he's less than two months removed from surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee. Or that he's dealing with a sore shooting wrist, an injury he refuses to acknowledge but that league sources say he suffered during his 31-point performance in theMinnesota Timberwolves' win-or-go-home regular-season finale. And Butler is pretending that nasty twist of his left ankle late in the first half of Saturday's Game 3 didn't happen.

The Timberwolves traded for Butler, reuniting him with Thibodeau, because they had waited way too long since tasting playoff success. They planned to pair him with blossoming superstar big man Karl-Anthony Towns to form the foundation of an instant winner.

But Butler and Towns no-showed in the Timberwolves' first two playoff games since Kevin Garnett's prime, as Minnesota fell in an 0-2 hole to the top-seeded Houston Rockets.

Better late than never, though.

The Timberwolves' two All-Stars finally arrived for Game 3, and suddenly it's a series after Minnesota's 121-105 victory at the rocking Target Center.

"I can tell you that over the last couple of days I got tired of my teammates telling me to be more aggressive," Butler said after his 28-point, seven-rebound, five-assist performance in the Timberwolves' first playoff win since Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference finals. "So I took it upon myself to do just that."

Butler set the tone for the Timberwolves, coming out in attack mode, a stark contrast to his uncharacteristically passive play while attempting a total of only 17 shots in the first two games of this series. He had 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting by the end of the first quarter on Saturday -- nearly matching his average of 12 points in the two games in Houston -- breathing fire into a home crowd that showed up hoping for reason to believe.

"He's the heart and soul," said Timberwolves point guard Jeff Teague, who had 23 points and eight assists, outplaying counterpartChris Paul. "When he's out there competing, it rubs off on everybody."

It took Towns, the primary focal point of the Rockets' defensive scheme all series, a little while longer to finally make his presence felt in the series. Houston continued double-teaming Towns almost every time he touched the ball in the paint, a strategy that factored into the 22-year-old scoring in single digits in his first two playoff games. Here's how ridiculously rare that was: It hadn't happened with a player who averaged 20-plus points per game in the regular season since 1979.

Towns didn't even attempt a shot Saturday until the 10:46 mark of the second quarter, when he let out a primal roar after dunking over Rockets center Clint Capela. Towns got in his first real groove of the postseason during the third quarter, scoring eight points, which matched his better game in Houston.

"I'm just letting the game come to me naturally, instead of trying to rush and find shots," Towns said. "And then shots find me."

It's not that Towns, who finished with 18 points on 5-of-13 shooting, was spectacular; that's still an off night by his standards. But he was an offensive factor, a first for him in the playoffs, in addition to grabbing 16 rebounds and blocking two shots.

"His activity was terrific," Thibodeau said, which was the opposite of his public opinion of Towns' first two playoff outings.

It's not as if Butler and Towns didn't get a lot of help. But the help hasn't been the problem.

Andrew Wiggins, the distant third member of Minnesota's big three, has been the Timberwolves' best player in the series. He was great again in Game 3, scoring 20 efficient points (7-of-11 shooting) and recording five rebounds and five assists.

Derrick Rose, the injury-prone former league MVP who reunited with Thibodeau as a castaway hoping to resuscitate his career, is making his old coach look wise by providing offensive punch off the bench in the playoffs. He had 17 points in 21 minutes on Saturday.

And Teague was terrific, hurting Houston with his perimeter shooting and penetration. The Rockets seemed on the verge of mounting a serious rally, having sliced the deficit from 19 points to nine, when Teague made the biggest play of the game, an and-1 floater with 6:29 remaining. Butler followed that with a 3, then stripped MVP front-runner James Harden and fed Teague for another 3, and the rout was on again.

"They played with a little bit more emotion than we had, a little harder," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Especially in big moments, they came up with a stop or a score or something. We didn't battle enough to overcome the crowd and emotion that they had. Give them their due, but we need to play a little bit better and harder."

D'Antoni vowed that the Rockets, who haven't found their normal offensive rhythm yet in this series, would make some adjustments after an embarrassing defensive performance. The Timberwolves shot 50 percent from the floor and were 15-of-27 from 3-point range, making as many 3s as the Rockets in 14 fewer attempts.

But D'Antoni also warned that the Rockets would head back to Houston with the series deadlocked if they don't match the Timberwolves' intensity in Monday's Game 4. That would guarantee a Game 6 back at the Target Center, where Timberwolves fans hope they can get used to seeing playoff basketball again.

"This city," Butler said, "deserves to be in the playoffs a little bit longer."

For that to happen, the Timberwolves' All-Stars have to do their part again.

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