Talkin’ About Practice: Defensive intensity and RoCo’s impending return

To say that the Wolves have struggled defensively lately would be an understatement. Over the winless three game road trip the Wolves returned from on Monday afternoon opponents scored an average of 129.3 points per game while sporting a smooth 123.6 defensive rating, good enough for last in the league over that stretch.

“We talked about it a lot today, in terms of, for us to win games we gotta come in with a defensive mindset and identity and a togetherness that it hurts to get scored on defensively,” interim coach Ryan Saunders said. “That’s like any team in this league. If you’re not going to play defense, there’s a lot of teams that can score in this league, and outscore you.”

Atlanta, Indiana, and Washington all proved that outscoring the Wolves was entirely possible. There have been times this season when the Wolves actually have been a really solid defensive team. Those days haven’t appeared for a while, however. Sure, part of that can be attributed to Robert Covington missing the last 26 games with a knee injury – and he’ll miss his 27th in a row on Tuesday against the Thunder – but that’s not the entirety of the story.

The intensity hasn’t quite been there. There have been too many times when the Wolves have looked lifeless on that end of the floor, leading to easy baskets or open looks for opponents.

“I think it’s been something we’ve battled this season,” Saunders said. “In spurts we have had it, a better defensive intensity throughout games. But we need to become an every night team for us to really take the next step.”

Getting Covington back will surely help them on that end of the floor. He’s one of the best defenders in the NBA, and they’ll benefit when he gets back. But while he’s been gone, a great deal of his responsibility has been on Josh Okogie’s shoulders.

Okogie has performed well for the most part as a rookie. But as most rookies do, he’s had his ups and downs through what’s been a very tumultuous season for the Wolves. He’s been tasked with handling the opposition’s best offensive threat more times than not, which is a tough ask for someone with as little NBA experience as he has.

“No, I mean I’m always guarding the best player usually. Me being a rookie, I think they’re trying to get off. There are times I need to step up,” Okogie said. “I mean, it’s always painful when somebody scores on you. … I have to do a better job of getting into my man and making it hard for him. It is definitely painful when we’ve had the outputs we’ve had the last couple games.”

Covington on the horizon

While Covington won’t play against Oklahoma City on Tuesday night in Minnesota, the Wolves are hoping a return is nearing for the wing.

He spent a few days last week in Iowa getting in practice time with the Iowa Wolves, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ G League affiliate. He didn’t participate in any games with them, but it was an opportunity for him to get some work in while the Wolves were on the road.

“All reports back were good. All I know is that at some point this week hopefully we see him in action,” Saunders said. “He was able to go through everything they had. That involves scrimmaging, drill work, things like that.”

His return will help the team on the court, but even with his injury, he’s still tried to find ways to help out the Wolves from a close distance. After practice on Monday he spent at least 25 minutes on one of the courts chatting with Karl-Anthony Towns and a couple of Wolves assistant coaches.

“Robert is a great guy, and obviously he’s a big piece of what we do and who we are. But it’s next man up. I’m definitely looking forward to getting him back on the court as soon as possible, but if he needs more time to heal we have to be able to hold things down,” Okogie said. “Look at him now, talking to KAT. That’s the kind of person he is, always wanting to help out and give advice.”