A Rivalry is Born: Covington Comes Up Clutch, Angry Karl-Anthony, and Point LaVine

New Orleans Pelicans v Minnesota Timberwolves

Last night, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers played a basketball game in South Philly, and a cross-conference rivalry was born.

The center position is alive and well in the NBA, and the two of the biggest young superstars matched up on Tuesday evening. It was a perfect opportunity for the league to showcase two of its most gifted giants with guard skills, but unlike the first meeting back in November, the sequel would not be nationally televised. Through the first two-and-a-half quarters, it appeared that the 76ers would avenge their blowout loss in Minneapolis and stomp the Wolves by twenty or thirty points.

However, Minnesota would not go quietly into the night. The 76ers held a 57-42 lead at halftime, then stormed out of the gates to open the third quarter and take a commanding 70-44 advantage. During the first quarter, Joel Embiid was spelled by Nerlens Noel, who helped keep the momentum moving in the right direction. But for some odd reason, coach Brett Brown opted to replace Embiid with Jahlil Okafor (instead of Noel). When Okafor checked in at the 7:58 mark, the Sixers still held a convincing 70-49 lead, but that would soon evaporate. By the time Embiid checked back in for Okafor, it was a 10-point game, 73-63. That was the last time Okafor saw the floor, as he sat out the entire fourth quarter.

Suddenly, in a game where it felt like Embiid was dominating, Karl-Anthony Towns began to take over. After spending the first meeting and most of the second covering Ersan Ilyasova rather than Embiid, KAT stepped up and tried to slow the scorching Sixers rookie, but with mixed results. Towns swatted some shots and forced a few travels, and he got hot on offense. But Embiid bullied Towns in the paint, much to KAT’s chagrin. Embiid is already making the lives of referees more difficult in a similar fashion that we saw from Superman Shaquille O’Neal. There was one play where Joel literally bowled over Karl-Anthony on the low block to score an easy layup. Refs will be challenged on a regular basis, as Embiid is extraordinarily strong and thus highly capable of displacing a defender from his legal guarding position. Towns spent a good portion of the game complaining to the zebras about all the contact he was enduring, and he was visibly ticked off by Embiid. It’s such a shame that now we have to wait until next year to witness these two titans going toe-to-toe once again.

As has been the case for the overwhelming majority of the season, the “fans” booed Robert Covington mercilessly for much of the game. Covington finished with 13 points (4-14 FG, 1-9 3Pt, 4-4 FT), 10 rebounds, four steals, two assists, and one block in his 39 minutes of action, and he effectively shut down third-year forward Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins ended up with eight points (2-15 FG, 0-3 3Pt, 4-4 FT), five boards, four turnovers, three assists, and one steal, but if not for an unbelievable alley-oop behind-the-head catch and finish, the Philly faithful might have gone on blaming Covington for the team’s near-collapse.

I’ve gone to bat for Bob Covington before, and I’ll do it again. My faith in humanity, what little there is left, will be completely shattered if the folks at Wells Fargo Center keep booing this man. The 76ers lineup is taking shape, and it’s pretty easy to see Ben Simmons sliding into the starting lineup in place of T.J. McConnell, who also had a brilliant game on Tuesday night, effectively outplaying Wolves’ veteran point guard Ricky Rubio. A starting five of Simmons, Nik Stauskas, Covington, Ersan Ilyasova, and Joel Embiid is going to be a lot of fun to watch no matter how horrible the logjam is off the bench.

For Minnesota, Wiggins and Rubio both struggled, though the latter hit a timely three with less than two seconds remaining that would’ve sent the game to overtime (if not for Covington’s heroics). This is the part in the article where I ruffle feathers. Rubio is a very good defender, boasts impeccable vision, and willingly does the little things that won’t show up in box scores but help win games. He can be a valuable piece, but in my opinion, his inability to score on a consistent basis makes him a backup. No, I’m not suggesting that it’s time to throw Kris Dunn into a starting role. He showed some real spunk on defense last night; at least a couple of the five fouls he was called for were nonsense. Nevertheless, he’s not ready for that responsibility yet.

Zach LaVine is not a point guard. I know I’ve written those words before. Yet the same thing has been said about triple-double machine and fellow former UCLA two-guard Russell Westbrook, NBA champion Kyrie Irving, former MVP Derrick Rose, and plenty of other studs occupying the league’s deepest position. LaVine may be the farthest thing from a point guard right now, but I’d put the ball in his hands and let him sink or swim. There’s not much evidence that suggests LaVine should be molded into a point guard, except for the fact that more and more shoot-first guards are playing it. Still, I believe putting the ball in LaVine’s hands could be the answer that’s hiding in plain sight for Tom Thibodeau and the Timberwolves, even if it means starting Brandon Rush alongside him at shooting guard. Allowing LaVine more on-ball responsibility would force opposing teams to press up on the ball instead of allowing them to back off like they can against Rubio and Dunn. How many players combine elite athleticism with outstanding outside shooting? Zach is a freak athlete with a flamethrower, but it feels like his potential is not being fully explored. What if he can develop as a ball-handler, distributor, and on-ball defender? Minnesota is not making the playoffs this year, and they’re still searching for an identity. This is the perfect time for the Wolves to try some stuff and experiment without fearing that it won’t work out.

Arrow to top