The Minnesota Timberwolves spent the run-up to Tuesday's matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers and old pal Jimmy Butler insisting that it wasn't a statement game, that it wasn't a chance to prove something.
"I haven't thought much about it, and the team hasn't thought much about it," said interim head coach Ryan Saunders. "We just want to focus on who we have in front of us next, and who's in our locker room."
But whether they wanted to acknowledge it or not, this was a chance for the Wolves - who've played markedly better since trading their four-time All-Star - to prove that they did not, in fact, need Butler. It was a chance to serve some comeuppance to the guy who'd held the team hostage and sabotaged the start of their season. And, for Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, it was a chance to punch back at the guy who'd set out to performatively humiliate them on his way out the door.
So much for all that.
The Sixers laid waste to the Wolves with an offensive monsoon. They poured in 81 first-half points en route to a final tally of 149, the franchise's most prolific scoring night in almost 30 years. They won by 42 points, equaling their greatest margin of victory in the past decade.
In fairness, Minnesota did not have wing stopper Robert Covington - arguably the biggest driver of the team's renaissance since being acquired in the Butler trade - and the Sixers shot the ball comically well, finishing with a .598/.488/.857 line. But the Wolves also incurred a number of defensive breakdowns. They brought late or ineffectual double teams, got roasted in transition, let roll men rumble to the rim undeterred, left shooters unguarded in the corners off of blown rotations and lazy closeouts, and provided no help as sailing lobs found open backdoor cutters.
Towns has been a transformed player since the Butler trade, upping his scoring average from 19.9 to 23.2 points per game, his assists from 2.1 to 3.3, his true-shooting percentage from 58.8 to 60.1, and his rebound rate from 14.9 to 18.1 percent while being more assertive on offense and more active and engaged on defense. But he showcased none of that newfound assertiveness or activity in this one, as Joel Embiid completely worked him over.
The 23-year-old was passive, a non-factor as a back-line defender, and he got outmuscled in the post. He drew Butler on post mismatches on a few occasions, but either passed out of single coverage or dithered too long and allowed a help defender to converge:
Towns finished just 11 offensive possessions with a shot or drawn foul, collecting three rebounds and registering a minus-42 in 28 minutes.
Wiggins was no better, and his 40-point, 10-rebound, four-assist masterpiece against the Thunder last week already feels like a distant memory. In three games since, he's averaging 15.6 points on 34.6 percent shooting. His finishing at the rim remains bafflingly poor and he continues to barf up a lot of 19-foot jumpers off the dribble. On one of the few possessions in which he worked himself into a favorable spot Tuesday, he backed T.J. McConnell down onto the left block, only to shoot a spinning fadeaway over his right shoulder. He scored 14 points on 17 shooting possessions and napped on defense.
Minnesota did have a teamwide paucity of off-ball movement and shot 20 fewer threes than Philadelphia - Jeff Teague was strangely unwilling to pull the trigger on open looks - but Towns' and Wiggins' stinkers stood out in a game against a former teammate who'd openly and specifically questioned their compete level.
Butler, meanwhile, stood out as much for what he didn't do as what he did. While both Bulter and Embiid have griped about their roles, the eight-year veteran took a back seat Tuesday and allowed the Sixers to play through the big man, which is when they're at their best. It was a great example of how effective Butler can be as a secondary or even tertiary offensive option.
He popped open for threes in the corner, snuck in a couple backdoor cuts, and made plays off the catch. The Sixers usually run their dribble-handoffs with Embiid for JJ Redick or Landry Shamet, but they ran that action for Butler on Tuesday to great effect. This play, in particular, was a nice look at how using Ben Simmons as an off-ball screener for Butler can help them navigate their tenuous floor balance:
Butler still got to probe a bit and run the odd pick-and-roll, but for a lot of the game he seemed content to spot up and wait patiently for his opportunities. He finished the game with a relatively paltry 17.1-percent usage rate, but he scored 19 points on just 10 shooting possessions while keeping enough in the tank to play some tremendous defense.
This was initially going to be a piece about the ways Butler had changed both these teams, for better and worse; about how, given the way things ended for him in Minnesota and the way they began in Philadelphia, both teams would be forgiven for feeling like they made the right move for the wrong guy. But then the Wolves went out and did that, and the Sixers went out and did that.
This one game probably won't put an end to Philadelphia's internal tension, and it doesn't make the team's upcoming stretch feel any less daunting. It did, however, illuminate a crucial difference between Butler's old situation and his new one: Philadelphia's issues are mainly structural, and there are always workarounds for structural issues. The Wolves' main issue can't really be schemed through, as their two frustrating and inconsistent max players remain frustrating and inconsistent.
The Sixers may not have come into the game with a point to prove, but they left it having made Butler's point about the Timberwolves for him.