Friday brings us some interesting revenge narratives across the NBA. Blake Griffin’s first game against the Clippers since being traded just over a week ago may draw the majority of the headlines, but we also have Jimmy Butler’s highly-anticipated return to Chicago. Over the summer, Butler was traded to the Timberwolves in exchange for Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn after spending the first 6 seasons of his career in Chicago.
The Wolves are destined to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004, but their defense has been really struggling of late. Tom Thibodeau’s teams have historically been known for their defensive prowess, but this team certainly doesn’t fit the bill. Minnesota just allowed the Cavs to hang 140 on them the other night. The Wolves now have a defensive rating of 107.9 on the season, which ranks just 25th in the league. There are lottery teams (Brooklyn, Dallas, Atlanta) that have been playing better defense than the Timberwolves this season.
Fortunately, they’ve been so potent offensively that the poor defense hasn’t cost them yet. The Timberwolves have an offensive rating north of 111, which ranks third in the NBA behind the high-flying Warriors and Rockets. That’s some pretty heady company, and we’re not used to a Thibodeau team being so proficient on the offensive end.
Obviously, the talent has a lot to do with it. There aren’t many teams in the league that can match the talent level of Minnesota’s starting 5 of Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson (also back in Chicago for the first time) and Karl-Anthony Towns. KAT endured a sluggish stretch recently, but he’s perked back up over the last 3 games. In those contests, the former Rookie of the Year has averaged 25.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and just under a block per game.
Of course, Towns is expected to take a backseat in the offense tonight with Butler’s revenge narrative. Butler has already said that he’s had tonight’s game circled on the calendar for a while, and with good reason. Rather than trying to build a contender around Butler, the Bulls decided that shipping him out of town and starting a rebuild was the best way to approach the future. Most players will take that kind of thing personally, and you can bet Butler is one of them.
As for the Bulls, they actually do have some interesting building blocks thanks to the Butler deal. Markkanen has looked like a complete steal as a rookie, while Kris Dunn has played excellent all-around basketball despite a mediocre rookie campaign last year in Minnesota. Chicago also just got LaVine back from last season’s ACL tear, and it’s safe to say he already looks like his old, springy self.
Dunn will, unfortunately, miss tonight’s game as he continues to recover from a concussion, while Markkanen is back with the team after missing a couple of games for the birth of his child. Bobby Portis drew a start in Markkanen’s stead last time out and didn’t disappoint. The third-year forward finished with 18 points and 14 boards in 32 minutes. With Markkanen back, though, we can expect Portis to return to his reserve role.
Chicago may have a bright future, but they’ve really been scuffling without Dunn of late. The Bulls enter tonight’s game as losers of 7 straight games, including an embarrassing 104-98 defeat in Sacramento last time out.
We mentioned Minnesota’s struggles on defense, but Chicago is predictably worse. The Bulls check in at 26th in the league in D-rating, one spot behind the Wolves. The Bulls are also 12th in the league in pace, though they’ve been playing faster since the calendar flipped to 2018.
This could be a blowout in Minnesota’s favor, so the Wolves at -7 ½ looks mighty tempting. That said, the implied total of 217 looks exploitable, too. There figures to be little defense in this game, as neither team has shown a willingness to make an effort on that side of the floor. So, hitting the over on 217 looks like the play in this one.
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