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Irving to return as Celtics face Timberwolves

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Timberwolves are trying to keep themselves near the top of the packed Western Conference without star Jimmy Butler.

Thursday's opponent, the Boston Celtics, found out they won't be short-handed heading into Minnesota.

Boston guard Kyrie Irving announced Wednesday that he would return to the lineup for Thursday's game against the Timberwolves after missing one game with left knee soreness.

"I'm in," Irving said, according to Boston Globe reporter Adam Himmelsbach on Twitter.

The Celtics (45-20) hardly missed Irving when he was held out of Monday's 105-89 victory at Chicago, but having the All-Star back in the lineup against Minnesota (38-28) will be a boost for the No. 2 team in the East, which is healthy aside from forward Gordon Hayward. Hayward, of course, has missed all but one game this season and isn't expected back this season, a blow Irving told reporters was hard to get over initially.

"Losing Gordon was just a few more eyes on me that I had to be a lot more aware of, and then also with one of our leaders going down, it's tough, because it's an adjustment," Irving told the Boston Globe on Wednesday. "Coming into a new environment and you're kind of expecting this is going to be the team, and then one big piece goes down, and you have to figure it out from there."

Irving has kept Boston on track without Hayward. Irving is scoring a team-high 24.8 points per game and has passed out a team-best 5.1 assists. Monday was his seventh missed game of the season.

Irving has scored at least 17 points in each of his past 10 games since missing three at the start of February. He's eclipsed 30 points three times in that span. The Celtics have won five of their past six games.

"He brings that winning mentality," swingman Marcus Smart told the team's website. "A guy like Kyrie who knows what it takes to win a championship and the things you have to go through, to have somebody like that to come in and stabilize this group where you've got a lot of young guys, young talent that's been thrown in the fire very early, it's been huge for us."

Without Irving, Jaylen Brown scored a team-high 21 points Monday against the Bulls. Boston's depth showed with 10 players playing between 16:03 and 31:31 on Monday. Smart has returned from injury in the past two weeks. Marcus Morris' minutes have increased lately and the team added center Greg Monroe in February.

"That's the league. Especially with them. The way they started the season, with Hayward going down, the first game, everyone was like 'there's their season,' but they found a way collectively, obviously Kyrie's' the head of the snake," Wolves guard Jamal Crawford told the team's website. "They've been impressive."

Meanwhile, Minnesota is relying on its starting unit as much as ever. Losing Butler has moved forward Nemanja Bjelica into the starting lineup and Crawford's scoring is more of a necessity.

In eight games as a starter this season, Bjelica is averaging 10.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Butler, in his first year with the Wolves, has been irreplaceable, though. Minnesota has lost three of its past five games, including the game in which Butler injured his knee.

The untimely slip in the packed Western Conference means the Wolves have gone from third place to tied for fifth.

Minnesota has had five days off between games, a time to rest and refocus, but also time missed as the rest of the West keeps winning.

"I think the biggest thing for us is, one, rest," All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Two, mental recharge. And then to be able to come back and really get right. Get in tune, tweak some things in our offense and defense to be ready for what is, for some of us -- especially me and (Andrew Wiggins) -- the biggest stretch of our career so far."

Updated March 7, 2018

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