By: Jonah Sprinkel
In the span of one week the Minnesota Timberwolves will have begun their season and played five games. The Timberwolves have yet to have a homestand of more than a game. The team has traveled from Minnesota to San Antonio to Minnesota to Dallas to Minnesota to Toronto. Jimmy Butler is still on the roster and playing basketball, something that will hang over the team until some form finality arrives. It’s safe to assume there is physical fatigue from travel and competing. I would suggest that emotional fatigue from the Butler drama is also present.
Despite that, and an unsightly loss to the Dallas Mavericks, the Timberwolves have a chance to go over .500 for the first time this year. The only thing standing in their way is the Toronto Raptors and their newly-acquired star, Kawhi Leonard.
What: Wolves @ Raptors
When: 6:30 PM CT
Where: Scotiabank Arena
Where to watch: Fox Sports North
Where to listen: 830 WCCO
What to watch for
Jimmy vs Kawhi: The outcome of NBA games is generally dictated by how well the star player for each respective team performs. Tonight’s game will follow a similar blue print with Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler. Leonard missed last year with some weird injury and team related issues before being traded to Toronto. He has not played against Jimmy’s newest form, the vibrantly brash leader capable of running a starting unit off the floor with third-stringers.
In the seven games against each other, Leonard has dominated Butler statistically (Butler scored more than 20 once in 2014) and holds a 4-3 record over the former Marquette Golden Eagle. Leonard is as competitive as they come. He is not the vocal competitor that Butler is and will continue to prove himself on a new team in a new conference. Butler is in the opposite situation as he displays his talents to potential trade suitors. This one should be an excellent basketball showcase.
A weird kind-of bench unit that works: Last season, the Timberwolves were dead last in bench points per game with a hair under 27. Through four games in the 2018-19 season the Timberwolves bench ranks 11th in the league with 39.9 points per contest. This improvement can be attributed individually to Derrick Rose playing better than expected and Gorgui Dieng’s hands being on fire. However, there’s a bigger picture item that is being missed.
Jimmy Butler missed the Timberwolves outing against the Dallas Mavericks, a losing effort if you need a reminder. But in the three games he has played, Tom Thibodeau has put him on the floor with Tyus Jones, Rose, Anthony Tolliver and Gorgui Dieng for roughly seven minutes a game. This is the Timberwolves second most common lineup. They are outscoring opposing lineups by over 30 points per 100 possessions.
On paper this does not appear to be a lineup that would be successful. It features a glaring lack of perimeter shooting and two-point guards that are undersized defensively. This lineup will not post such positive numbers all season, but it may continue to be a benefit to the Timberwolves. My working theory for why this lineup is successful is simple: Jimmy Butler and his competitive leadership.
Minnesota: PG Jeff Teague, SG Andrew Wiggins, SF Jimmy Butler, PF Taj Gibson, C Karl-Anthony Towns
Toronto: PG Kyle Lowry, SG Danny Green, SF Kawhi Leonard, PF Pascal Siakim, C Serge Ibaka
Minnesota: Justin Patton – OUT (Foot)
Toronto: Delon Wright – Game Time Decision (Thigh)
The Timberwolves will get their first look at an MVP level player this season. The Raptors have yet to lose a game and have wins over the extremely talented Boston Celtics and probably playoff bound Washington Wizards. If the Timberwolves want to walk away with a W, everyone will have to be on their A game. 118-112 Raptors.