With the score tied in the fourth quarter Saturday night, Robert Covington waved his arms and got Target Center on its feet. The crowd oohed and ah-ed as Derrick Rose turned in another vintage performance that showcased his daring athleticism, and those that braved the storm got loud, trying to will the new-look Timberwolves to a victory over the Celtics.
For a few moments, it seemed the Wolves might overtake Boston, but the Celtics showed championship mettle in fending off the home team for a 118-109 victory.
“We had some miscues and made some mistakes. It was our fault,” Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “They’re a great team and made us pay for those mistakes.”
The Wolves erased a 14-point second-half deficit to tie the score 89-89 with 8:48 remaining, only to have the Celtics go on a 7-0 run. Then the Wolves pulled within 103-101 with 3:31 to play only to have Boston answer again with six consecutive points to seal the victory.
Gordon Hayward, who has struggled since returning from a fractured ankle, returned to form for Boston with 30 points. Rose had 26 to lead the Wolves while Towns pitched in 20 and nine rebounds. It was a solid effort for the Wolves, but not quite a complete game.
“I didn’t think we played with great energy, and you need to play with great energy every night,” coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Forward Taj Gibson, however, saw it slightly differently. The Wolves had good energy, he said, they just didn’t play well enough to topple a top team. Gibson felt the positive energy in the arena and thought the Wolves might complete the comeback. Saturday, they just didn’t execute well enough to do it.
“It comes down late to getting stops,” Gibson said. “We had good chances, but we got to get stops at the end of the game.”
That pitfall for the Wolves has been less frequent since trading Jimmy Butler to the 76ers and getting Covington and Dario Saric into the rotation. A big factor in their defensive revitalization (the Wolves were No. 1 in defensive rating over the last eight games before Saturday) is the communication between players. Covington, a first-team defensive player, has been a vocal presence from the start and hasn’t been afraid to tell players when they can do things better.
This was a major complaint of Butler after a Nov. 9 loss at Sacramento, the night before he was traded. It was a sentiment Rose, the 2010-11 NBA MVP, echoed — the team couldn’t handle criticism.
Rose said that aspect of the Wolves was still a work in progress and that he also had to be one of the players on the team who was a vocal presence.
“At this stage in my life and my career, that’s what I’m here for, to be able to express how I feel, express what guys want to say but don’t say it,” Rose said. “It’s easy for me to communicate with people. They listen to me. I guess they trust me and believe in me. … I’m the one that’s coming to them and telling them what everybody wants to tell them.”
That was especially true with Towns, Rose said.
“KAT gets the ball and he makes a crazy pass, I say, ‘Hey, I got you guys, I’ll curse him out for you,’ ” Rose said. “Everybody is scared to say something to him, but the relationship we have, I tell him what I see, I try to be honest and he laughs it off most of the time. He knows that I’m here for the betterment of the team.”
The trade has given the Wolves a better mixture in the locker room and on the floor, with multiple Wolves saying the team is playing more “freely” since the trade.
Saturday’s game looked more burdensome than most Wolves games of late. The Celtics kept the Wolves at arm’s length throughout the third — the Wolves couldn’t get closer than six or seven — and answered each Wolves run in the fourth.
“It wasn’t about what they did,” Towns said. “It was more about us failing to do what we were supposed to do.”
That’s why there was genuine hope the Wolves might still get a victory Saturday — they’re now capable of anything. That wasn’t always the case before the trade.
“But that one still leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” Gibson said.