The Minnesota Timberwolves defense, again, appears broken.
Over the past 15 games, the Wolves have a better defense than only two teams in the NBA: The Phoenix Suns and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That is bad because, well, the Suns are actively trying to lose and because this is what defense looks like in Cleveland:
There is no connectivity to how the Cavs defend. Most notably, this truth leads to an easily penetrable heart of their defense. Minnesota took advantage of this in their Wednesday matchup at Cleveland, scoring 138 points on 57 percent shooting from the field.
Unfortunately, the Wolves’ defense was just as permeable.
Friday night against the Chicago Bulls was more of the same. The Wolves gave up 113 points in a losing effort. Zach LaVine (35 points) was the latest player the Minnesota defense gifted free passes to the cup.
A formula for cracking the Wolves’ defensive shell has resurfaced: Make them move.
The Minnesota Defense: A Four-Act Play
Act One: Oct. 18-Nov. 17 (10-5, 23rd in defense)
The first 15 games of the season, Minnesota struggled defensively to effectively transition back on defense and become “set.” When opponents pushed the pace, the Wolves’ shell profiled as gelatin; one simple movement (a pass) would cause them to quake and stabilize a second too late.
Act Two: Nov. 19-Dec. 16 (7-8, 24th in defense)
During the second set of 15 games, the transition defense did stabilize; however, opponents found a new way to make Wolves’ defenders move: The pick-and-roll.
This was the chunk of time where real fears of Karl-Anthony Towns ever “figuring it out” began to percolate. Towns — the team’s tentpole and last line of defense — was relying on instincts and not team concept on the defensive end.
The “dropping” and/or “ICE-ing” pick-and-roll defense that the Wolves often employ is synergistic; if one player has a mental lapse or goes rogue the holes become apparent.
The 30th game of the season — a home loss to the Devin Booker-less Phoenix Suns — was the nadir. After winning only seven of 15 games, The Wolves had fallen to 17-13.
Something had to change.
Jamal Crawford and Jimmy Butler had a late night/early morning meeting after that game and, almost magically, everything did change.
Act Three: Dec. 18-Jan. 14 (12-3, 5th in defense)
The Wolves won 12 games in Act Three with only three losses that felt almost forgivable given that they all took place on the road. The defense was to thank. The synergy previously void appeared overnight.
Here; Teague's recognition of ICE, Towns' ability to move his feet against penetration, Teague's active hands, and Butler's awareness are three examples (all in this one play) of how this #twolves defense is taking massive strides forward. #AllEyesNorth pic.twitter.com/aR2kuI8TDX
— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) December 28, 2017
The Wolves were ready to move. The defense at the point-of-attack — slowing down the initial action — was key. See: Jeff Teague in the above clip.
It was over this stint — specifically in that Denver game, the 32nd of the year — that Teague got hurt. The Wolves did not lose a step when Tyus Jones was inserted into the starting lineup in Teague’s stead. They actually improved.
Jones is one of the league’s smaller players but he played defense in the same stout fashion as when he was in a reserve role. Getting by Jones at the point-of-attack is akin to kicking a fire hydrant; he isn’t going to sway.
The offense also thrived over this Jones-led stint. Minnesota had the league’s best offensive rating in the league over this stint but it was their defense’s improvement — fifth-best in the league — that made the Wolves appear truly dangerous.
And then Act Four happened.
Act Four: Jan. 16-Feb. 9 (5-8, 29th in defense)
Game 46 of the season was the Bjelica-Afflalo brawl game in Orlando — a 108-102 Wolves loss. The previous month’s dominance had gleaned a belief that the Wolves were done losing to the league’s bottom-feeders, even if those games took place on the road.
This line of thinking proved to be false, perpetually.
In Act Four, the Wolves lost eight of their nine road games. Most painful were losses to Orlando, Atlanta, and Chicago — three teams vying for the worst record in the league.
The Wolves’ defense — 29th in the league over the stint — is to blame for the dysfunction. On the road, the Wolves D has been gifting the opponent confidence. “Bad teams” when confident are still dangerous in the NBA.
Almost unnoticed in the midst of the dysfunctional losses of the past 13 games is the fact that the Minnesota offense has been objectively stellar. From the Orlando loss to the Chicago loss, only the Houston Rockets have had a better offense than Minnesota. However, over that span, Houston is 11-1 and the Wolves are 5-8. This is because the offensive Rocket juggernaut has been complemented by a top-10 defense while the Wolves are 29th.
If Minnesota cannot play league-average defense, a hard ceiling for their successes will form. If the defense remains at the bottom of the league, the ceiling will cave in.
At 34-24, the Wolves still hold the fourth-seed in the Western Conference but Portland, Oklahoma City, and Los Angeles — currently seeds 5-7 — are one game in the loss column (25) behind the Wolves. And more crucially: The New Orleans Pelicans sit in the ninth seed — out of the playoffs — with 26 losses.
Hope for a Defensive Revival
As it sits entering Sunday evening’s matchup against the Sacramento Kings, Minnesota is 25th in the league in defense through 58 games. But there is hope. The Wolves have shown they can do it. Act Three should inspire faith in the idea of finding potential stability.
Cleveland and Denver are the only other current playoff teams who rank in the bottom-10 of the league in defensive rating for the season.
Neither of those teams has had a flash like the Wolves. In the Cavs’ best defensive month (November), they peaked at 21st in defensive rating. The Nuggets best month was December when they were 14th.
There has long been the narrative that Cleveland has the ability to “flip the switch” on the defensive end; that no longer appears to be the case. Minnesota is now that team.
For Cleveland, flipping the switch essentially meant trying. It doesn’t appear to be that simple with the Wolves. Unfortunately, the Wolves appear to have been working hard on that end all year. It isn’t a work harder mentality the Wolves need to employ, rather, their defensive success will require working smarter.
Five-player synergy is the key. Ever since Thibodeau has been in Minnesota, he has described effective defense as “playing on a string.” When the string is broken — often times in transition defense and/or ball screen action — it is one player that is out of position, thus breaking the string.
Running back as a group and communicating in the half court as a group limits faults. A hyper-focus on that end is crucial. To a man, the Wolves have the capability to defend.
The players in that locker room know this and their coach certainly does. There is no finger-pointing a la the Cleveland situation, the quandary is different in Minnesota: They know they can do it, they just haven’t.
After the Cleveland loss, Towns posited, “We shot 60 percent but at the same time our thing has to be defense and we didn’t play defense.”
Butler echoed a similar sentiment in the locker room after the loss in Chicago.
“We don’t play hard all the time. We just make stuff up and you can’t have that, especially on the road.”
It is now time for the fifth and final act of the season. Time to stop making stuff up. If they continue the path they are on and repeat Act Four they will potentially fall out of the playoffs. But if they flip on the Act Three switch, this team is clearly dangerous.
It’s funny how much one team can wax and wane. The Wolves remain perplexing 58 games into the season. Their next step’s success or failure will be determined by the defense and it will be defining.
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