MINNEAPOLIS – Twenty-eight quick thoughts for the 28 free throws attempted by the Minnesota Timberwolves in their 103-91 win over the Houston Rockets on Monday night at Target Center.
1. Back in April the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves squared off in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. As everyone knows, that series saw Houston quickly dispatch the Wolves in five games, including a remarkable 50-point quarter in Game 4 in Minnesota.
2. Yes, these teams – primarily the Wolves – have been no stranger to change since then, but Houston is still a high-powered offense led by James Harden and Chris Paul. Despite Houston off to a slow start this year, it’s crazy to look back at that night the Wolves allowed a 50 spot in a quarter and fast forward to Monday where Houston could only muster nine points in the fourth quarter, and 29 in the second half.
3. Something was said at halftime on Monday night that propelled the Wolves to a win over Houston. What was said may never be revealed, and it may never need to be, but it may also serve as yet another chaotic moment in this season that’s been filled with them.
4. “We came out that second half, we was just a different team than we were the first half,” Covington said. “They were getting a lot of easy stuff in the first half, but the second half, we came [into the locker room], we talked, and we allowed ourselves to make the transition. We held each other accountable, that’s the biggest thing. Guys are really holding each other accountable and, like you said, no drop off, really. That’s the identity, that’s what we’re doing as a team is holding each other more accountable.”
5. Minnesota entered half down 14 points, and that was only thanks to the 35-foot 3-pointer that Andrew Wiggins banked in at the buzzer. Despite that the Wolves had played six consecutive quarters of uninspired basketball with lackluster defense – a far cry from everything they were in the first nine games following the trade acquiring Covington and Dario Šarić.
6. Despite the shot from Wiggins, the Wolves trailed 62-48 at half time and allowed 38 points in the third quarter. Target Center seemed lifeless, with the most noise being made as former Wolves guard J.R. Rider was introduced in the first quarter and when Coolio came out to perform at halftime.
7. “Everyone in the building saw that we came out with an edge to us and a fire to us to get back in the game,” Karl-Anthony Towns said after the win. “We didn’t just talk about it, we came and did it. We came out, did what we said we were going to do, and not only did we do that, when we got back in the game, we didn’t let our foot off the gas, we kept going.”
8. The defense changed, as Towns mentioned, the energy did, too. Minnesota was ready for the second half when Houston wasn’t. Covington was a defensive spark that put everyone into place on that end of the floor. As always, he created multiple highlights on that end of the floor, something that has become routine for him.
9. The top play he made on Monday was when Covington snatched Clint Capela’s dunk attempt out of his hands at the rim in the fourth quarter. Covington came from behind Capela and it ended in a jump ball that Covington was able to win.
11. “I knew I could get it, he didn’t have no idea where I was. I just beat him as far as jumping. He’s very athletic,” Covington said. “I baited him, and he had no idea where I was on the court.”
12. That play kept Houston scoreless in the fourth quarter to that point. The Rockets were kept off the score board for more than the first five minutes of the period. For a team that was so bad defensively early in the year, it’s remarkable that it’s now the identity of the Wolves.
13. Previously, Minnesota had to win by outscoring teams. Now, they’re one of the toughest teams to score upon in the NBA.
14. “It just shows how good we can be defensively,” Covington added. “We really locked in, everyone, everyone that stepped on the court was really engaged in that second half defensively. That’s what allowed us to hold them to that. We was moving the ball really well, flying all over the place, and guys was finding the open man. We was locking in on defense, and to hold them to that in the second half was just a testament to how good we played defensively.”
15. Accountability may be something that this team lacked early in the season. Much of that can likely be traced to not everyone in the locker room – mainly Jimmy Butler – not having anything near a team-first attitude. That’s been the biggest difference. This entire team has bought in to what it takes to win, and they’ve realized it starts on the defensive end.
16. That’s a big deal. If this game would have taken place early in the season, there’s an extremely small chance that the Wolves are able to come back from a 19-point deficit against a team like Houston. There’s an even smaller chance that defense would have been the driving force behind such a comeback.
17. Another reason the Wolves were able to find a way to win on Monday night was the play of Andrew Wiggins. He finished with 16 points in the win – a far cry from something to write home about – but it was easily his best game of the season.
18. Wiggins was active defensively, knocking down shots on the offensive end, and showing glimpses of the player that everyone in Minneapolis hopes he can become.
19. In Saturday night’s loss to the Celtics, Wiggins had a stretch in the third quarter where he scored nine consecutive points. The hope was that small sample of success was enough to break him out of his slump that’s encapsulated his last couple of weeks.
20. “The past couple games I think he’s picked it up and he’s finding his rhythm again,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s driving the ball a lot more aggressively which I think is very important. He’s such a gifted scorer and we want him to use all of his abilities. Obviously, he’s shooting the three better, but when he puts it on the floor and he attacks the basket, his athleticism is special and when he does that, there’s going to be and-ones and easy buckets for him. It just makes us a different team. We just have to keep him aggressive, get him going.”
21. The 16 points are nice, even though he’s capable of more, but the biggest thing that stuck out about Wiggins was just how engaged he was. He’s never going to be the defender that Covington it, but he was very good on Monday night.
22. “He did a lot of things,” Thibodeau said of Wiggins’ performance defensively. “They put a lot of pressure on you, Capela’s great rolling to the basket. The two guards, everyone knows how good they are. You have to contain the ball as best you can, you’ve got to protect the basket and then you’ve got to get out. I thought Wigs had a lot of plays in which he was at the rim protecting and then firing out and flying around and covering the line. I think when he has that type of energy, it just carries over. He just keeps moving. That’s the way we need him to play.”
23. This is the Wiggins that the Wolves need to be successful. Now, it’s just a matter of bottling up the energy and performance from Monday night and getting that type of play on a regular basis.
24. Not only was this the version of Wiggins that the Wolves need, but it was also the version of Jeff Teague that Minnesota needs to see more of. Teague was able to take care of the ball, play actively defensively, and hit timely shots. He hit a pair of 3-pointers in the third quarter that tied the game for the Wolves and brought Target Center back to life. His play was a bright spot on a night where Derrick Rose didn’t have his best game.
25. In fact, it was odd to see Rose not play well after how good he’s been so far this season. The former MVP finished a scoreless night only taking four shots, but the Wolves thrived while he was on the floor. Just because the production wasn’t there from a scoring standpoint didn’t mean that he wasn’t playing well.
26. “All Derrick wants to do is win,” Tyus Jones said. “He’s been playing tremendous all year, shooting the ball at a very high clip. All he wants to do is win. He could care less about how many shots he takes. You won’t hear him say one thing about taking only four shots tonight. He was just making the right play, trying to help this team win. That says a lot about him, but it says a lot about everybody in this locker room. That’s what we’re trying to build on, just doing whatever it takes to win and it’s working for us right now.”
27. The reason Rose wasn’t as effective as normal can be traced to how the Rockets handled him defensively. They routinely made a strong effort to deny the ball when he was off it, and did a terrific job forcing it out of his hands by blitzing him on screens. That’s a sign of respect coming from Houston after a terrific start to the year by Rose. It’s even better for the Wolves that he’s able to realize what’s coming and find what works best for the team, rather than himself.
28. The Wolves are back in action at Target Center on Wednesday night against Kemba Walker and the Charlotte Hornets. Talk to you then.