MINNEAPOLIS -- As the excitement of a thrilling 119-116 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder washed over a near-capacity crowd at the Target Center, Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor made his way toward center court and put his arm around Jimmy Butler.
"That's why we brought you here," Taylor happily told Butler after watching the All-Star swingman drop 13 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, carrying the Timberwolves to a much-needed victory.
The fact that Butler did this after missing the past two games because of an upper-respiratory infection surprised no one who has watched the 28-year-old work on his game over the years. These are exactly the types of moments Tom Thibodeau envisioned when he acquired Butler from the pair's former team, the Chicago Bulls, over the summer. So when a reporter asked Thibodeau if he expected to get 38 minutes from his star after he'd missed the past few days because of the illness, Thibodeau was incredulous.
"Jimmy Butler?" he replied. "I did."
The two main reasons Thibodeau made the move to acquire Butler were because he wanted him to be a mentor for younger players and to take over games late when needed. Thibodeau trusts Butler about as much as any player he has coached because he knows he can count on him in any situation. That trust has been earned over years of hard work between both men.
"That's the time when he's usually at his best," Thibodeau said of Butler's late-game heroics. "That's the thing that you really respect from him. He always plays his best when his best is needed. I think that's a result of his preparation. He studies, he prepares, he works. And then, when those situations come, it's slow to him because he's already prepared for it and he's put the work into it. We always say the magic is in the work, it really is. [His performance] is a great example of that."
On top of the clutch shots he knew Butler can handle at this point in his career, Thibodeau also understood that by acquiring Butler and signing Taj Gibson, the pair would provide guidance for players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as they continue their evolution into star players. That leadership was on display as well on Friday, as Butler acknowledged after the game that he had a pregame talk with Towns, after two disappointing losses in which the Timberwolves gave up 252 points. Towns delivered to the tune of 33 points, 19 rebounds and four blocks.
"I hope so," Butler said, when asked his teammates feed off of what he's doing. "That's part of my role here, to make sure everybody's doing the right things. And playing with energy on both ends of the floor. We got a really talented group of guys, man. When everybody's clicking like that and we're executing -- yeah we had some hiccups today but when everybody's swinging that ball, moving that ball and we're playing team defense, team offense and team everything, we're going to be all right."
As long as Butler is on the floor, and Towns is producing at a high level, the Timberwolves are always going to have a chance to succeed in the difficult Western Conference. Butler believes every time he steps on the floor that he can dominate when needed, no matter which player he may be facing. He was willing to go shot for shot with Thunder All-Star Russell Westbrook down the stretch because he has built such a strong belief in himself over time. It's the single biggest difference in his game in recent years -- the ability to close things down for his team on any given night.
"He's a killer now," Gibson said. "I saw it in practice the last couple times how he's so eager to take the last shot when it's like a tie ballgame. Even though it's practice and it's a tie ballgame and it's close, Thibs [puts] one or two seconds on the clock, he always wants that shot and he always makes it in practice. And seeing that development in him over the years is crazy. He puts the work into the game, and tonight was just one of those games where he showed what he's capable of doing."