Last Friday, the Timberwolves locker room in Sacramento felt had a funereal pall over it. Jimmy Butler, in his last game with the team, called out his teammates for not being able to take direct criticism as the rest of the team quietly packed for a long flight home after a winless trip.
Contrast that with this Friday, when it was a buoyant Timberwolves locker room as Karl-Anthony Towns, newcomer Robert Covington (14 points) and Luol Deng joked around after another win without Butler, this time 112-96 over Portland, the team’s third since making the deal that jettisoned Butler to Philadelphia for Covington and Dario Saric.
What a difference a week — and a trade — can make.
On a night when the Wolves honored Minnesota’s favorite son Prince with purple jerseys and the king of the franchise, Kevin Garnett, set aside his feud with owner Glen Taylor for a night to take in the game, the Wolves played like basketball royalty in thrashing a Portland team that beat them by 30 on that forlorn West Coast trip last week.
After the game, Derrick Rose tried to put the brakes on the hype train.
“It’s still too early,” Rose said. “Don’t put no high expectations on us. We’re still trying to figure things out.”
It’s hard not to look at these Wolves and think they already have. They held Portland, one of the most prolific teams in the league, to 42 percent shooting and fewer than 100 points for the first time this season. Andrew Wiggins had a team-high 23 points while Rose pitched in 17, but the defense, a unit that was among the league’s worst when Butler was here, won the night.
“We’re taking pride,” Towns said. “I think especially right now, you see any one of us mess up, we’re looking to the person right away and telling them we messed up.”
Coach Tom Thibodeau gave a chunk of the credit for the defensive resurgence to the newcomers.
“Robert and Dario add a lot to that and the energy is contagious and so the effort has picked up,” Thibodeau said. “That’s probably the biggest thing.”
There were already positive vibes in the building before the game, when the Wolves showed Garnett on the scoreboard, causing a raucous ovation in Target Center.
Garnett donned one of the team’s Prince-inspired jerseys and had a seat under one of the baskets as he returned to Target Center despite his strained relationship with Taylor. who also owns the Star Tribune.
Garnett and Taylor have had an uneasy existence, and after Garnett’s second stint with the Wolves, he and Taylor fell out over Garnett’s role in the organization following the death of former coach Flip Saunders. Garnett has said he’d still like to have a role at some point with the Wolves, potentially as a member of the ownership. He declined an interview request Friday, only saying, “We just chilling tonight,” when approached at halftime. Towns said Garnett attended after he and Garnett had a “long conversation” about returning.
“I’m happy he came and we played really well as a team,” Towns said. “All he wants to do is see Minnesota succeed so I’m just happy we gave him something to cheer about.”
One of the biggest cheers from the crowd came midway through the fourth quarter, when the ball swung to an open Jeff Teague near the top of the key. Teague drained the three-pointer to put the Wolves up by 24 and kickstart a party like it was 1999, something that seemed like it might never happen again this season at Target Center.
“Winning cures things a little bit,” Rose said. “It gets you hype a little bit more.”