Coach Tom Thibodeau said before Wednesday’s game at Target Center that it was uncertain how many minutes he would use the newcomers, Robert Covington and Dario Saric, in their debuts with the Timberwolves.
There was the whole issue of being familiar with what the Wolves’ sets and plays were on offense, and what the principles were on defense. You are requested not to make any jokes about the latter item, such as the main principle of the Wolves’ defense has been taking the ball out of the net.
Thibodeau did reveal in his pregame media session that Covington would be in the starting lineup at small forward, while Saric would begin his Wolves’ tenure as a backup to Taj Gibson at power forward.
Several hours later, the Wolves had a 107-100 victory over New Orleans, and Covington was in civilian clothes and ready to answer questions from a cluster of unfamiliar media members.
“Welcome to Thibs World,’’ someone said. “Forty-one minutes.’’
Covington offered a slight laugh, a big smile and said: “I didn’t know that I played that many. I didn’t think I would play that many, not tonight. But the way the game was flowing … it didn’t feel like that many.’’
What did it feel like? “Maybe 39 minutes,’’ said Covington, smiling again.
Covington was asked if there were any queries from Thibodeau during the game, something such as, “Are you good to go back in?’’
Another smile that served as a “no,’’ and he said: “You just got to play. As Thibs said, ‘Being out there on the court is the best way to learn about your new teammates.’’
Covington’s official playing time was 41 minutes, 10 seconds, which was 23 seconds more than New Orleans’ superstar Anthony Davis. And during those long minutes in a freewheeling first half and grinding, sloppy second half, the Wolves learned as teammates rather than opponents that Covington’s status as an all-NBA defender comes with 100 percent legitimacy.
Covington is 6-9 and came out of Tennessee State undrafted in 2013. He will turn 28 next month. He first came to Philadelphia in 2014 as a roster filler as the 76ers went through the process — losing basically by design to load up on top draft choices.
The 76ers were 0-17 when they came to Target Center to play the Timberwolves on Dec. 3, 2014. They defeated Flip Saunders’ Timberwolves 85-77 on that night, with Covington playing 31 minutes and scoring 17 points.
I was in attendance and can swear to saying on several occasions: “Who is this guy?’’
The young wave of players started to arrive in Philadelphia, and all but one of the 76ers that defeated the Timberwolves on that dreary night in Target Center were gone by the start of the 2018-19 season.
The one remaining was Covington, and now he’s gone, too. He’s with the Wolves — and with a coach happy to have him. Forty-minutes-in-Game 1 happy to have him.
How long did you expect to play him, Thibodeau was asked as he walked toward the locker room?
Thibodeau smiled widely, something he had not been permitted to do often in the two months of the Jimmy Butler saga, and said:
“I didn’t know. I knew we could use him right away because he brings so much defensively. And he goes so hard … if you go hard enough it’s going to make up for a lot of things, including being new to a team.’’
Covington is a large man and doesn’t appear to be overly quick, but he was in passing lanes and stayed in front of New Orleans Pelicans — a team gifted with Davis and other offensive standouts — with terrific anticipation.
Covington did most of his shooting from three, making three of seven. He had seven rebounds, a couple of assists and a pair of steals. He also spent some time on the floor with Josh Okogie, the 6-4 rookie who brings the same enthusiasm to defense as does Covington.
“We did quite a bit of switching on defense,’’ Okogie said. “It’s always easier when you can switch, and you can do that with him.’’
Covington towers above Okogie, but admitted to seeing some of himself in the new rookie teammate.
“He has a feeling for the defensive part of the game,’’ Covington said.
Okogie also made three three-pointers, a season high. He was 3-for-5 on threes and said: “It was about time I made some threes.’’
It’s also about time the Wolves played some defense, and on this night, with Covington leading and Okogie among the followers, that’s what brought them through a second half when they shot 28.6 percent from the floor.