MINNEAPOLIS — A dusting of snow in the Twin Cities on Wednesday evening played a role in the small crowd that was inside Target Center when the Wolves tipped off against San Antonio. But the weather was only part of the reason there was so many empty seats in the building.
While the Wolves entered the game with a 6-2 record since they ended the Jimmy Butler saga on Nov. 10 by sending the disgruntled All-Star to Philadelphia, the franchise still has plenty of work to do to win back fans who jumped on board when Butler was acquired from the Bulls and bailed as the Butler situation became more embarrassing by the day.
Those fans, however, might have little choice but to begin taking notice of the Butler-less Timberwolves. The latest indication of this came as the Wolves crushed the Spurs 128-89 before an announced crowd of 11,023 that looked far smaller.
The Wolves beat the Spurs so badly that coach Tom Thibodeau actually pulled many of his key players in the fourth quarter and called on underused rookie Josh Okogie and the rarely used James Nunnally and Luol Deng. Okogie, who deserves to play far more, mixed in an impressive dunk and finished with 12 points in 10 minutes after playing two minutes in the past six games.
The Wolves have now won four in a row.
Here’s the remarkable thing about this team: While Thibodeau, the Wolves’ coach and president of basketball operations, remains a bellowing, unhappy Grinch most of the time his players have formed a team that is easy to like.
Sure, Andrew Wiggins remains an underachieving enigma, but Robert Covington, the key player obtained from the 76ers in the Butler trade, is a hard-working, talented and defensive-minded player who isn’t intent on verbally beating up his teammates and rather is invested in finding a way to win games.
Covington finished Wednesday with a game-high 21 points, making 4-of-9 three-pointers, pulling down nine rebounds and registering a remarkable plus-minus of plus-44 in 30 minutes, 58 seconds.
“From just coaching against him, you always felt his energy in the game,” Thibodeau said. “What you don’t see is how disruptive he is. I knew when we played against him, whenever you tried to … if you were tight with the ball and he’d strip it. And if you tried to throw over him, he’s a very hard guy to throw over and then he’s very versatile in terms of switching. So you knew that. … He’s definitely first-team, all-league defense. He’s special.”
Covington, who came to the Wolves along with Dario Saric, also recognizes something that Butler never did seem to get. That’s the fact that he can likely have long-term success in Minnesota if he helps to empower Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns has been a happier, and thus more productive player, since Covington arrived and Butler departed.
Imagine that, team chemistry actually matters.
On Wednesday, Towns had 16 points, 11 rebounds and five assists as point guard Jeff Teague was the only Wolves starter not to reach double-figures in points. While Butler was sold as a great presence on defense, the Wolves were near the bottom of the league in defensive rating with Butler picking and choosing his playing schedule. They have skyrocketed to near the top of the NBA in that stat with Covington working his butt off on a nightly basis.
Despite their success since Butler was jettisoned, the Wolves still have work to do because they were 4-9 before the trade. The victory over the Spurs placed Minnesota (11-11) in a tie with New Orleans and Sacramento for ninth place in the Western Conference, a half-game out of the final playoff spot.
“We put ourselves in a big hole early, but now the distractions are gone,” Wolves veteran Taj Gibson said in a postgame interview on Fox Sports North. “We’ve got a new group of guys and we’re playing the right way.”
The frustrating thing is the Wolves could have been playing this way weeks earlier if Thibodeau had granted Butler’s wish to be traded and not hung onto him in hopes that his favorite player would reconsider his request. Instead, Thibodeau put the franchise through unnecessary angst and ignored the fact that a happy Towns is a productive Towns.
The Timberwolves now have what appears to be a quality team, not to mention a likeable one. The key for the Wolves’ marketing department is going to be getting fans to notice. Thibodeau’s continued presence promises to make that a difficult task, but a few more blowout victories over teams like the Spurs might make it impossible to ignore this collection.