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With Jimmy Butler sidelined, training wheels are off for Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins

With Jimmy Butler sidelined, training wheels are off for Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins

Karl-Anthony Towns got popped in the chin so forcefully that the only option the rest of his body gave him was to hit the floor. As a kid, Towns’ mother, Jacqueline Cruz, always warned him not to reach around the stove, lest he wind up getting burned. But the inclination to put his hand where it shouldn’t be has always remained. And there was Towns, reaching on defense last week and inviting a nasty collision with Washington’s Tomas Satoransky that had him rolling in agony, wondering if his teeth were still in his mouth.

Towns eventually got back up on his feet, spit some blood and little bits of his teeth into a cup and was ready to get back on the court. Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau was concerned his All-Star big man might’ve sustained a concussion but Towns calmed any uneasiness with a question.

“Do I still look pretty?” Towns asked Thibodeau with a chipped-tooth grin, providing a much-needed moment of levity for a team that could understandably be on edge right now.

No NBA franchise has experienced a playoff drought longer than the Timberwolves, who haven’t had their season extend beyond 82 games since 2004. Few Western Conference playoff races have been so intense that every game has to be approached with postseason intensity. And, with All-Star forward Jimmy Butler out indefinitely while rehabbing mostly in Los Angeles from a meniscus injury, Minnesota is being asked to navigate its way through what Towns has described as “a swamp” by leaning on two youngsters who are playing meaningful professional basketball for the first time.

Towns and fellow former No. 1 overall pick and Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins both specialized in padding meaningless stats on bad teams before the expectations and demands changed this season. The arrival of Butler in a draft-night trade and Thibodeau’s investment in a more veteran supporting cast meant that it was time to turn promise into productivity and toss the excuses into the wastebasket. Butler brought his blunt, take-it-or-leave-it leadership style from Chicago and used his familiarity with Thibodeau to lift Towns and Wiggins out of the pressure-free stages of their careers. But Butler’s unfortunate setback in the first game after the All-Star break removed those trusty training wheels.

“You don’t want to see anyone get injured, certainly not Jimmy, and we know we can’t replace him individually. We have to do it collectively,” Thibodeau told Yahoo Sports. “But whenever someone goes out, it’s an opportunity for others to step up and grow. So we want to take advantage of this … and really, the only way you can learn is to go through it.”

Towns returned from the chin music in Washington to inspire his teammates with a season-high 37 points and the two decisive plays in a 116-111 victory — drilling a 3-pointer from the left corner just before the shot clock expired and running out to the 3-point line to force Bradley Beal into a turnover. In the previous game against the Stephen Curry-less Golden State Warriors, Towns scored on five consecutive possessions to help the Timberwolves pull away for good. Though he wasn’t often placed in those situations with Butler around, Towns isn’t intimidated by the moment.

“It’s normal. I feel comfortable being in this position and I have great teammates. It makes everything a lot easier to do,” Towns told Yahoo Sports about his role as a leader. “Just trying to fill in some voids. Having a bigger role to play now, having to do a lot more. I go with how the situation is playing out. Sometimes, you do it by voice. Sometimes, you do it by action. You don’t have to always be ‘rah-rah’ about it.”

Wiggins was probably better positioned to emerge with Butler out because both play on the perimeter with the ball in their hands more. The Timberwolves didn’t start to take off until Butler took more command of the team, building a dark-horse MVP argument. But his success came at the expense of Wiggins’ involvement and forced him to make a difficult adjustment as the team’s third option most nights. Wiggins now gets more touches but hasn’t gotten greedy in Butler’s absence.

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