All you needed to know about the Timberwolves’ performance on Wednesday night was that Tom Thibodeau sat for most of the fourth quarter.
The perpetually worried Wolves coach could sit back and relax, relatively speaking, empty his bench and admire his team’s handiwork on a night it could do almost no wrong with a 128-89 demolition of the Spurs.
Winning by 39 tied for the third largest victory margin in franchise history, and the most lopsided triumph since beating Oklahoma City 129-87 in 2009.
“I’d take that every game,” Thibodeau said of his extended rest. “But that’s part of the NBA season, we had a lot of things go well for us.”
That was putting it mildly. The Wolves dominated the Spurs from the second quarter onward. It began when the second unit did the heavy lifting in extending a three-point lead after the first quarter to 23 at halftime. Then the starters came back in to stretch the lead to 34 by the end of the third. At one point, the Wolves led by an astounding 48 points.
The one constant in both units was Robert Covington, who starts but has also mixed in with the second unit at the beginning of second quarters. Covington had a remarkable boxscore line. His 21 points led the Wolves and he grabbed nine rebounds, but he finished the night as a plus-44, meaning the Wolves outscored the Spurs by 44 while Covington was on the floor. It was the highest plus-minus rating for a Wolves player since 2001.
“I thought people were playing with me when they first said that,” Covington said.
When Karl-Anthony Towns, who frequently ribs Covington in the locker room, heard the statistic after the game, he took a WWE championship belt he was carrying over his shoulder and placed it on Covington’s chair.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before,” Thibodeau said of Covington’s night while referring to him as “special.”
“I tell [Covington] be ready to play 40 [minutes],” Gibson said. “Because the way Thibs loves your defense, you can tell.”
Forty minutes wasn’t needed Wednesday, the latest chapter in the reclamation project Covington and Dario Saric have helped the Wolves undertake since they arrived from Philadelphia. The Wolves have won four in a row and are 7-2 since the Jimmy Butler trade. They have climbed out of the 4-9 hole they were in at the time of the deal, and they have done it with a defense that seemingly came out of nowhere.
“The ceiling is still high,” Covington said. “Just because you’re 7-2 — there’s still a lot we can do to make ourselves that much more deadly. … But it’s a relief for a lot of guys. Now guys can just go out and play freely.”
Added guard Jeff Teague: “Give us a couple more games. I think we’re playing well as a group and we believe in one another. I think the group is jelling on and off the court.”
On the court, the chemistry was palpable Wednesday. One of the reasons the Wolves have been so successful the past few games has been their bench play. Derrick Rose continued his efficient shooting with 16 points on only eight shots while Covington led the charge on defense, with the Wolves allowing only nine points to the Spurs in the second quarter. The defense was among the worst in the league when Butler was here; now it’s among the best.
“We started playing defense and winning some more games, so I think we’re starting to see that’s what it takes,” guard Tyus Jones said. “That can be our identity.”
That ought to put Thibodeau at ease, at least a little bit.