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Thursday, Aug 16, 2018
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Jimmy Butler leads Timberwolves against team he loved

MINNEAPOLIS — All-Star forward Jimmy Butler comes across as the proudest former resident in the history of tiny Tomball, Texas. What he doesn't advertise in his Twitter biography, but also doesn't dispute, is that he grew up dreaming of becoming a Houston Rocket like his hero Tracy McGrady.

"It was Houston everything for me," said Butler, who grew up in Tomball, roughly 30 miles from Houston's city center. "Whatever sport I was in love with at the time, I wanted to be playing for the Houston Rockets, Houston Astros, Houston Texans. I was Houston to the death."

Butler was recounting his childhood history in a mostly empty locker room late Saturday night, having just inspired the Timberwolves to a stirring postseason victory over (you guessed it) his boyhood favorites.

Something else Butler didn't deny after Minnesota's first home playoff date in 14 years: Beating top-seeded Houston in Game 3 of this first-round Western Conference matchup, which cut the Rockets' series lead to 2-1, pleased him even more than he had thought it might.

"Being in the playoffs, for this organization, that's big in itself," Butler said after amassing 28 points, seven rebounds and five assists — as well as a fresh ankle injury to go with a nagging wrist problem — in the Timberwolves' 121-105 triumph. "To be playing against Houston and a lot of guys I really respect on the opposing team, it means a lot, too.

"A team that close to my hometown, to get an opportunity to beat up on them a little bit, I'm taking it."

How much longer the Timberwolves can hang with the 65-win Rockets most likely hinges on the outcome of Game 4 here Monday night. Chances are Minnesota will not be able to outshoot their longball-happy visitors from 3-point range, as the hosts unexpectedly did in the first NBA playoff action at Target Center in some 5,075 days. But credit Butler and Co. for rebounding nicely from two dispiriting losses in Houston and, at least for the moment, foisting some angst back onto the heavy favorites, whose offense, by typical Rockets standards, has underwhelmed.

The Timberwolves were 30-11 at home during the regular season and predictably looked much more comfortable in their own arena than they had in Houston, particularly the postseason newcomers Karl-Anthony Towns (18 points and 16 rebounds) and Andrew Wiggins (20 points on just 11 shots, including four 3-pointers). A resurgent Derrick Rose chipped in 17 points in 21 minutes off the bench, but Butler, as ever, was Minnesota's tone-setter. He scored 11 in an aggressive opening quarter after taking just six shots in Game 2 and, more important, played all but two minutes and 34 seconds of the second half despite badly twisting his left ankle shortly before halftime.

"Don't know what you're talking about," Butler said in an attempt to shut down questions about his latest ailment. He refused taping or treatment of the ankle and would not say much about his taped-up shooting wrist, either, insisting that injuries can be blocked out if you "tell your mind it doesn't hurt."

Not that you will find many locals prepared to dispute Butler's claims. The city is his after Butler, 28, shook off a 17-game absence following surgery on his left knee Feb. 25 to play in the final three regular-season games and nudge the Timberwolves into the West's last playoff berth. The Timberwolves, who had slid from third to eighth in the conference standings and went 8-9 without Butler, watched him pour in 31 points April 11 in the regular-season finale at home against Denver. That overtime victory sent Minnesota to the postseason for the first time since its 58-win team in 2003-04 advanced to the Western Conference final.

"I've played with a lot of All-Stars," said the Minnesota reserve center Cole Aldrich, who counted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Rockets' James Harden as teammates when he broke into the league with Oklahoma City in 2010-11. "And Jimmy is one of the best — not only on the court but off the court."

Referring to his first season with the Timberwolves in 2016-17, before Butler's arrival, Aldrich added, "Our culture is a lot better now."

Aldrich grew up in nearby Bloomington, Minnesota, and was a teenager in 2004 when the Timberwolves — coached by another Minnesota native in Flip Saunders and featuring the star trio of Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell — made the best playoff run in franchise history. So, like Butler, Aldrich found himself flashing back to his youth Saturday night.

Thanks to a former AAU coach who regularly had access to good tickets, Aldrich said he was a spectator in the lower bowl May 29, 2004, when the Wolves captured Game 5 of the Western Conference final against a Lakers squad led by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, and coached by Phil Jackson. It was the Wolves' last postseason win before Saturday.

"A long time coming," said Aldrich, who never left the bench in this Game 3 but had an enviable vantage point — with his mouthpiece, as always, perched on his left ear — for Minnesota's uncharacteristically blistering 15-for-27 shooting from deep.

According to Ted Johnson, the Timberwolves' chief strategy officer, only 10 names on the current Timberwolves staff directory were also there in 2004. Not quite remembering myself what to expect from a postseason crowd here, I placed a call before getting to town to the most accomplished player in Timberwolves annals for a refresher.

"Leave your coats outside," Garnett shouted into the phone, during a break from his work as host of "Area 21" for Turner Sports. "It's going to melt the city. The Target Center will be on fire. The Garnett Center will be on fire."

The ever-passionate Garnett went on to explain that, during the Timberwolves' run of eight successive playoff berths from 1997 through 2004, he would often joke with his longtime teammate (and future coach) Sam Mitchell that he planned to lobby the organization to officially change the name of the building in his honor.

The Timberwolves opted instead for a $150 million Target Center renovation and a draft-night trade with Chicago last June to reunite Butler with Tom Thibodeau, the hard-driving Minnesota coach and team president for whom Butler played in Chicago. The idea was that Butler, along with the subsequent veteran additions of Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford and another Game 3 standout, Jeff Teague, would show the precocious Towns and Wiggins how to win.

Said Butler: "As long as we keep growing as a unit, we'll be here for years. I'm glad everybody came out and showed a lot of love. This is a big fanatic sports town and they deserve nights like this."

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