MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Timberwolves were on the verge of losing their second consecutive game, as they trailed the Houston Rockets by 14 points at halftime. The energy was suspect around the team, the defensive identity that had taken over the team didn’t appear present, and the Wolves had now strung together six lackluster quarters in a row.
Something happened at halftime. We may never know exactly what, but the team that came out in the second half of that come-from-behind win was re-energized and ready to lock down on the defensive end of the floor. Just months before, a very similar Houston Rockets squad hung 50 points on the Wolves in the third quarter of Game 4 of their first-round playoff series in Minnesota.
On Monday night they could only muster 29 points in the entire second half, including a season-low nine points in the fourth quarter.
“We already knew what our game plan was that we had to fix before [Coach Thibodeau] came in, we were talking about it,” Robert Covington said after the win.
Covington pointing that out shows a few things, most notably that there’s an improved accountability in that locker room that didn’t exist before. It hasn’t been revealed who led the halftime meeting, but multiple players acknowledged its existence.
Like the blowout win over the Spurs, this moment could be viewed as a turning point for this team. It’s no secret that defense has been a focal point of the team since the acquisition of Covington and Dario Šarić — but this was different. This was the first time that this new-look team has faced adversity on the court in this way.
“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.”
The answer that sticks out is that the team apparently knew what needed to be fixed prior to Thibodeau spoke to them in the locker room. That’s not to say whatever Thibodeau had to say didn’t matter. But great teams, players and cultures are able to figure these types of things out on their own. The Wolves doing just that is a huge step in the right direction.
“To be honest, I think it’s KAT and Rob,” Derrick Rose said. “When got them two guys playing at a high level on the defensive end, you have no other choice but to follow. When you’re out there giving 90 percent but you have 10 extra percent to go, then you see Rob take the ball out of three guys’ hands or you see KAT block shots, get rebounds, then punish guys on the inside. You have no other choice but to follow behind those guys and play as hard as you can.”
Covington has given this team a defensive identity that didn’t exist before. Coming back from 19 points is something that likely would not have been done prior to the trade being made, and if it did, the reason it would have happened definitely would not have been because of the play at the defensive end of the court.
What Rose said has merit, too. When Karl-Anthony Towns and Covington share the floor the Wolves have been awesome defensively. In the 256 minutes that they’ve played together this season, the Wolves have a defensive rating of 98.7. That’s a big reason why the Wolves have improved their defensive rating from north of 114 to 108.4 in just 10 games that Covington and Towns have shared the floor. The Wolves went from dead-last in the NBA defensively to 17th overall.
The ranking of 17th doesn’t appear on the surface to be impressive, but considering where the team started, this run has been spectacular.
“It felt good to finally go into the locker room at halftime, really say what we wanted to do in the second half and go out and do it,” Taj Gibson said. “It shows growth.”
“It’s one of the first time I’ve seen in a long while. Guys understood it, guys understood the matchups, we were preaching it and we came out fine.”
“We just held each other accountable. We’ve seen that team a lot of times and you get frustrated at times. You get frustrated at how they play, how they’re laughing during the game. It’s a talented team and it was pissing us off. At halftime guys just set the tone in the locker room and we came out and did the job.”
The hope is that this type of meeting is one that can help to build the momentum for this team. This team is still finding itself and building a defensive identity. The win over Houston — and the halftime locker room meeting — could be a moment where that identity was solidified.