MINNEAPOLIS -- As the Minnesota Timberwolves get ready for a winner-take-all showdown against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night with a playoff berth hanging in the balance, Jimmy Butler offered one more set of verbal missives after Monday night's win over the Memphis Grizzlies. When asked why, yet again, his squad came out flat in the first half against a tanking Grizzlies team, Butler wasn't afraid to speak his mind.
"We were just playing soft," Butler said. "We tend to do that from time to time. Whenever we play hard good things happen, which is what a lot of people have been preaching around here lately. I just think everybody, no matter the talent level, you go out there and compete, you do your job, but [over] all else you just play harder than everybody."
It's the same message Butler has delivered throughout the season. The one that is regularly directed at the same people. As frustrated as the 28-year-old All-Star swingman has been with his team's performance at times, what has irked him -- and many others within the Timberwolves organization -- is the up-and-down play of young players Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. While Butler and coach Tom Thibodeau haven't publicly called out either player by name, the implication from both men is clear heading into the franchise's biggest game in years: In order to take the next step in their development as a group, they have to get more from the young duo who are supposed to serve as cornerstones for this organization for years to come.
"I don't care what the reason may be," Butler said while discussing why he thought his team came out "soft." "I want to play a full 48-minute game. I don't think we've yet to do that this year. I want guys to come out, defend, know the coverages that we're in, and even if you mess up, just play hard and get in the way, something good will happen out of that, I promise. Right now we have to play harder than anybody on every possession for what's at stake. I think we lose control of that at times and it's really frustrating to a lot of guys that are in this locker room, but we got to play harder. Every single possession from the jump to finish."
The fact that his comments came after game 81 in a season when the Timberwolves are trying to qualify for the postseason for the first time in 14 years is telling. But the delivery is similar to what Butler said after the 12th game of the season, following a disappointing loss to a bad Phoenix Suns team.
"Offense will never be the problem all year long," Butler said at the time. "All you're always going to hear about from us, from everybody else, is we're not playing any defense. That is our biggest letdown right now. And until we fix it, a lot of outcomes are going to be like this one."
Butler called his team's shot. The Timberwolves enter their showdown with the Nuggets ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency, giving up 108.4 points per 100 possessions. While the blame for the poor defensive rating doesn't rest solely on the shoulders of Towns and Wiggins, neither player fares well when taking a closer look at the numbers. After a slow start to the season on the defensive end, one that saw him rank toward the very bottom of all qualified centers, Towns has bounced back a little, ranking 66th out of 81 qualified centers with a defensive real plus-minus rating of 0.14. Wiggins has not fared as well, ranking 80th out of 90 qualified small forwards with a -1.49 defensive real plus-minus rating.
What frustrates Butler and many others within the organization is that there have been far too many games throughout the season when one or both players don't appear to be giving maximum effort on every play. At 22, and having earned his first All-Star appearance this year, Towns is an unbelievably skilled offensive player, but there are still far too many moments in games where he isn't carrying out the orders that Thibodeau has given, or struggles to maintain his intensity throughout the course of a possession.
Same goes for Wiggins, who signed a max extension worth close to $150 million before the season began. With the Timberwolves' season hanging in the balance over the past few weeks and Butler on the bench because of knee surgery, Wiggins averaged just 12.4 points in his past five games, including seven against the Grizzlies while going 3-for-12 from the floor.
While a playoff berth would be a positive sign of growth for a team in desperate need of one, the reality that Towns, and to a deeper degree, Wiggins, have not elevated their games to a higher level in recent weeks has to be very concerning for Thibodeau, especially with the amount of money due to Wiggins in the coming years and the fact Towns will be up for his own max extension in the near future. In the short-term, Thibodeau remains outwardly confident that both young players will show up when it matters most.
"They've prepared themselves all year for this," Thibodeau said. "This is why you work. They continue to grow. I think they're learning a lot. The last month has been great for us, just in terms of every game meant a lot in terms of the playoff race. And also to have to do it without Jimmy. So it was a chance for growth, and any time someone's out it's an opportunity for someone else to grow, and [Towns and Wiggins] did."
For his part, Towns said he will be leaning on his past experience in big high school, college and international games to prepare for the tension-filled atmosphere that awaits the Timberwolves at Target Center on Wednesday night. Towns acknowledged that Minnesota's playoff drought has been weighing on him, despite the fact he is in just his third season with the team.
"I don't like losing. It's that simple," he said. "I don't like losing at nothing. I don't like losing at walking, talking, breathing, speaking. I don't like losing at anything. I want to be the best. If I put my heart and my soul to it and any effort whatsoever inside of me, I want to be the best at it. I don't like losing. I understood the situation when I got drafted here and I wanted to be part of the fix, not of the problem. So I wanted to make sure I do everything in my power to find ways to win here."
Butler, who is still on a minutes restriction heading into Wednesday's make-or-break game, just wants the young players to lay it all on the line -- like he feels he does every time he steps on the floor.
"I just want everybody to play hard," Butler said. "I think if I can do it, everybody can do it. Just showing you when you play hard, you get a bucket, set [up] somebody else, get a stop -- to me that's fun. I love playing defense. I love getting stops. I love yelling, exerting my energy on every single play. I want to instill that in everybody else in that locker room."
In his own simple way, Wiggins might have summed up what's on the line better than anyone else could have heading into the biggest game of the year. When asked whether this season would be considered a failure if the Timberwolves don't make the playoffs, the soft-spoken swingman delivered an honest assessment.
"Basically," Wiggins said. "[Then] everything we did is for nothing."