LOS ANGELES — Clinging to the eighth spot in the Western Conference with Jimmy Butler back in the fold, Tom Thibodeau says he likes where the Minnesota Timberwolves are with two home games remaining in the season.
After sitting out the past 17 games following surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee, Butler scored 18 points to help Minnesota halt a two-game losing streak with a 113-96 road victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Minnesota improved to 45-35 and is clinging to a half-game lead over the Denver Nuggets (44-35) for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoff race.
The Wolves also trail New Orleans, San Antonio and Oklahoma City — all three are currently 45-34 — by a half-game for the fifth spot and are 1½ games behind fourth-place Utah (46-33).
“From four to 10, you win one game and you feel like you got a shot at being in a good spot,” said Thibodeau, whose team overcame a 12-point second-quarter deficit. “And you lose a game and you feel like you could be out. I don’t want our guys to get lost. Just understand play as hard as you can on every play.
“This is a great experience for our guys. I like the position we are in. We are going home and we got to be ready when we go home.”
Minnesota has two home games remaining against Memphis and Denver, and with Butler back just in time. Butler hit 7-of-10 shots and had four steals in 22 minutes against the Lakers (34-45).
The veteran guard said he felt winded at times and perhaps that showed when the 86.5 percent free throw shooter missed 4 of 8 attempts from the line.
“I gamble a lot on defense, I got lucky enough to get two early [steals] and [felt] winded a little bit, missed some free throws but other than that I felt pretty solid,” Butler said of his return.
“… We need them all,” Butler later added of each remaining game. “We need them all. We are not satisfied with just this one. We got a team that we haven’t beaten this year on Monday in Memphis. They have been whupping our tail all year long.”
Thibodeau said the team missed Butler’s toughness, especially late in games when the All-Star can provide scoring, rebounding and defense.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how well he played,” Thibodeau said. “Usually when a guy is out that amount of time, there is going to be some rust. But I thought his timing was terrific. His free throw shooting was not typical of who he is, but overall very good and he was chomping at the bit to go in and that is a good sign also.”
Butler hit 5 of 6 shots and scored 11 of his points in the second half when the Wolves pulled away from an injury-ravaged Lakers team.
Luke Walton’s team was already playing without Lonzo Ball (knee contusion), Brandon Ingram (concussion) and Isaiah Thomas (hip) when it lost Kyle Kuzma in the third quarter to a mild left ankle sprain.
Kuzma, who was already playing through a sprained right ankle, had X-rays which were negative on his left ankle. Butler was available to play Thursday night, but the Wolves opted to keep the guard out for one more game to be safe. Minnesota lost that game 100-96 at Denver.
With Butler back in the starting lineup, all five of Minnesota’s starters scored in double figures.
“I think every game is massive,” Towns said. “It’s really tight. I rather be in looking to stay in than having to be outside looking in, you know? It is big to be putting ourselves in this position. [But] there is no time to be feeling good about ourselves and relax.”