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Timberwolves have big plans for Trail Blazers

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Minnesota Timberwolves have gone big as they try to make up for the loss of shooting guard Jimmy Butler, who is out for at least the rest of the regular season following surgery on his right knee.

When the Timberwolves visit Moda Center for a Thursday night matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers, they will go with 6-9 Taj Gibson, 6-10 Nemanja Bjelica and 7-foot Karl-Anthony Towns on the front line along with 6-8 Andrew Wiggins and 6-2 Jeff Teague in the backcourt.

The addition to the starting lineup is Bjelica, a power forward who slides to small forward alongside Gibson, with Wiggins -- a natural small forward -- moving into Butler's normal spot.

Coach Tom Thibodeau's move is a matter of adding the next-best player to his lineup, even if it means a couple players are out of position. When Butler missed action because of a sore knee in January, Bjelica started all four games and delivered an 18-point, nine-rebound performance that helped beat the Clippers 126-118 at Staples Center on Jan. 22.

"When Jimmy went down, Belly did great for us," Taj Gibson told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He won that Clipper game for us. He was European Player of the Year (in 2015) and he can do it all. He can dribble. He can shoot. He can put it on the floor. Belly is a talented player. I'm looking forward to him doing the job."

In their last game, a 118-100 victory over Sacramento on Monday, Bjelica -- the Wolves' best 3-point shooter at 42.9 percent -- had 12 points, including two 3-pointers, along with seven rebounds, four steals and three assists.

"We need everybody to contribute in that way," Thibodeau said. "Getting seven rebounds out of that position, and have that length, is a big plus for us. Just the threat of his shot opens up the floor, and he moves well without the ball. If you turn your head, Belly is going to cut. He gets us moving."

Bjelica, who has helped Minnesota (38-26) to a 2-0 record since Butler left the lineup, isn't going to try to do too much.

"Nobody can replace Jimmy, because he's our best player," Bjelica said. "But as a team, we can do a lot of good things. I just try to do my job."

The problem won't be at the offensive end. Minnesota scores 111.4 points per 100 possessions, third-best in the NBA behind Houston and Golden State. But the Timberwolves are 24th in defensive rating, and Butler was their best defender.

Thursday's game is a big one in the Western Conference playoff race. Portland (35-26) stands in fifth place, 1 1/2 games behind No. 3 Minnesota (38-26) and one game back of No. 4 San Antonio (36-25).

Portland coach Terry Stotts said this is the tightest playoff race, from No. 3 to 10 in the West, that he has seen in 25 years coaching in the NBA.

"There are going to be a lot of games played amongst those eight teams," he said. "That will create some separation. It may not wind up as an eight-team race, but there are going to be some interesting races no matter what happens.

"We have nine games against teams in that group (the rest of the regular season). The team that comes out with the most wins in those games is going to be in a better position. It's going to be exciting. You're going to have a lot of significant games through the remainder of the season."

Minnesota vs. Portland, Stotts said, "is one of those games.

"It's an important game for both teams It's a swing game. (The Wolves) lead the season series 2-1. It could have a lot of (playoff) implications."

Updated February 28, 2018

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