MINNEAPOLIS — With a baseline drive by Chris Paul and a bounce pass into the paint to Clint Capela, the Houston Rockets had what appeared to be an uncontested dunk early in the fourth quarter that would have cut Minnesota's lead to five points.
Robert Covington closed in from behind, stopped the 6-foot-10 Capela cold and, managing to avoid the body contact that would have drawn him a foul, tied up the NBA's most accurate shooter last season to earn a jump-ball call .
Yes, the Timberwolves are playing legitimate defense these days, even after trading their best defensive player.
They erased a 19-point deficit in the final minute of the second quarter Monday night and outscored the high-octane Rockets 55-29 in the second half to notch one of the most remarkable victories in three seasons under coach Tom Thibodeau. That was the fewest points allowed in a second half by the Timberwolves in almost 11 years.
"We've got to change things," said center Karl-Anthony Towns, who had a plus-17 rating in the game . "We've got to be the team that wants it more, and I think 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. The one thing I'm real proud of us is that not only did we come in here and talk about it, we came and did it."
Since the forced departure of All-Star shooting guard Jimmy Butler, the Timberwolves are 8-3 with 102 points (under the average of the NBA's stingiest team, Oklahoma City) or fewer allowed in eight of those games. They're also giving up the least amount of points in the paint in the league during this span.
For the season, they're 13th in the NBA in points allowed per game, up from 17th last season. Their defensive rating, an advanced metric calculated by the league, is 16th, up from 25th. They're also second in the NBA with an average of 15.8 deflections per game, up from fifth.
Solid defense is about so much more than simply height, strength or quickness. It starts with effort and mindset. Then there's communication and positioning. Finally, there's the basic ability to get hands in the passing and shooting lanes and to pick up more loose balls than are lost, a significant area of emphasis for Thibodeau.
"Now we're starting to do that, so I think that's a big step for us," Thibodeau said after practice Tuesday. "The challenge never stops. You have to keep doing it day after day. You can't be bored with any of the process of going through what it takes to build a great defense."
Thibodeau was hired in part for his defensive acumen, but success has been slow to come. Getting Towns and fellow max-contract-carrier Andrew Wiggins to bring consistent awareness and tenacity on that end of the court has been a challenge, to cite one factor. That, too, was one reason Butler decided his future would be better out of Minnesota and requested a trade.
After letting the awkwardness and tension linger through the first 13 games, Thibodeau finally found a trade partner in Philadelphia. The Timberwolves acquired Covington and sharpshooting power forward Dario Saric in the package from the 76ers.
Covington, a first team NBA All-Defensive selection last season, has been taking the lead on the opponent's top scorer from the small forward spot, with Wiggins usually in Butler's old position. The rest of the players in the rotation have exhibited more confidence and energy with the saga of the disgruntled Butler finally resolved.
From Covington frequently waving his arms up and down to get the crowd revved up for a key defensive possession to the grinding intensity often on display by power forward Taj Gibson, the Timberwolves clearly have been having more fun and playing looser than before the Butler deal was done.
"I feel like guys are seeing how close we are to getting wins and trying to secure a playoff spot," Gibson said. "The hunger's there. You see everybody real eager."