In the Timberwolves locker room at halftime of their game with Houston on Monday night, before coach Tom Thibodeau came in to talk, players were already taking care of business.
Things had to change.
“We knew what we had to fix,” Robert Covington said.
The Rockets were getting too many transition threes. Rebounding was a problem. Houston center Clint Capela was having too good of a game. He needed shutting down. “We talked about that,” Covington said.
Night and day. In a 103-91 victory at Target Center in front of an announced 13,834 fans who got more excited by the minute, the Wolves came back from 16 down early in the third quarter for a victory with a defensive ferocity not seen much in these parts in recent years.
There have been good games. Comebacks. But a comeback against a high-scoring team laid low by defense? Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns was asked if he could remember such a game. “I’d lie to you if I said I did,” he replied.
Another step. There was so much to like in Monday’s victory. In no particular order: The returning confidence of guard Jeff Teague … the satisfying aggression Andrew Wiggins has begun to show … Dario Saric’s rediscovered three-point touch.
But the defense.
After giving up 62 first-half points — 38 in the second quarter — on 55.6 percent shooting, the Wolves held Houston to 29 second-half points — nine in the fourth quarter — on 31.6 percent shooting.
“We came in here and made it clear we had to change things,” said Towns, who finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds. “We came out with an edge, a fire to us, to get back in the game. One thing I’m proud of is not only did we come in here and talk about it, we came out and did it.”
The Wolves trailed by 16 with 9:24 left in the third quarter when it started. From that point, until a double-teamed Towns found Covington at the top of the key for a three-pointer with 8:27 left in the fourth — a total of 13:57 — the Wolves outscored Houston 42-14.
Some moments stood out: Teague hitting consecutive three pointers, the second one tying the game at 76. The Wolves holding the Rockets scoreless for the first five-plus minutes of the fourth quarter. Covington coming from nowhere to interrupt Capela mid-dunk, tying him up then winning the jump ball early in the fourth, with Towns scoring at the other end to push the Wolves’ lead to nine.
The Wolves (12-12) made 11 of 22 three-pointers, with six players hitting at least one. Both Towns and Taj Gibson (15 points, 11 rebounds) had double-doubles. All five Wolves starters scored 13 points or more.
Capela finished with 24 points and James Harden had 29 for Houston (11-12). But the two were a combined 7-for-17 in the second half.
The story was defense.
“This just shows how good we can be defensively,” Covington said. “We really locked in. Everyone. Everyone who stepped on the court was really engaged in the second half defensively.”
Afterward, Covington said he believes the Wolves are becoming a team whose identity is defense.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “A guy like me came in here, as far as the way I bill myself, holding guys accountable. The way I lead is by example. And it’s very contagious. You can see already how guys are picking it up. … That’s the effect I want to have, a positive influence on this team. It’s unique to see how we’ve gelled already.”