It wasn’t pretty, nor was it easy, but the Minnesota Timberwolves came through when it counted and grinded out a win against the New Orleans Pelicans. It was a sloppy game of basketball on both ends, with the teams combining to shoot at a sub-40% clip and committing a total of 47 turnovers. A late-game D’Angelo Russell banked-in 3-point shot was one of the few moments of solace in the game. The rest was just a mess.
On the bright side, that game on Saturday night is one that the Wolves of the past lose more often than not. The offense wasn’t humming, which had always paved the way for total collapse against inferior opponents. Against a Pelicans team that was missing Zion Williamson but had a red-hot Brandon Ingram (12-of-23, 30 points), the writing was on the wall for Minnesota to completely surrender their 13-point halftime lead.
However, a commitment on the defensive end, and a stroke of genius by Chris Finch to have Jordan McLaughlin play the entire 4th quarter, gave the Timberwolves enough time to iron out their wrinkles and pull away at the end of the game. Russell was borderline unplayable for most of the game, but came up big in the moments that mattered the most. Were it not for the newfound defensive tenacity that this “New Year, New Me” Wolves roster has showcased, the team would have caved under New Orleans’ pressure and would be sitting at 1-1.
If the all-too-familiar apathetic defensive approach of Timberwolves’ past had been the norm going into the Pelicans game, the team loses that game 10 times out of 10. Jonas Valanciunas bullied Karl-Anthony Towns all night, as he is wont to do, and frustrated him to the point where he kicked an innocent chair as he fouled out of the game. Valanciunas couldn’t guard Towns offensively (10-of-20, 25 points) but held him to only four boards and rendered him useless on the defensive glass by playing his brand of physical basketball. If the rest of the team isn’t there to commit defensively and pick up that slack, the game goes down as a bad loss.
While we can likely write off the Houston Rockets game as one against a team vying for the first pick in next year’s lottery, Saturday’s contest against New Orleans was against a talent-deficient yet significantly more experienced roster. Valanciunas is no joke, Ingram is a former All Star, and the team has nothing to lose as it waits out the Zion Williamson injury.
Still, it has to be asked: Is this Timberwolves defensive engagement sustainable? Will the team be able to keep up this level of activity against better opponents? The Pelicans tested the Wolves, but will their defensive adjustments make a difference when they play true playoff candidates?
Minnesota has the second-best defensive rating (93.1) through two games, the seventh-best scoring defense (97.5 ppg), and ranks first in steals (31), blocks (20), and defensive turnovers (54). The Wolves are also allowing the fewest assists per game (18.0), which means they are closing down the passing lanes well. They have also allowed the fourth-fewest 3-point makes (20), third-worst 3-point percentage (27.4%), and rank in the top-10 in many other defensive shooting metrics. All of these are good things, and certifiable improvements over years past.
Conversely, the Wolves have given up 33 offensive boards (16.5 per game) this year, worst in the league. The lack of size may come back to bite them, and with that many offensive opportunities for other teams, the Timberwolves would stand to see some of their defensive numbers suffer.
Keep in mind that the Timberwolves have only played two games against opponents that aren’t projected to be good. The Pelicans, at 0-3, are currently bottom-five in PPG and offensive rating. The Rockets rebounded well against the Oklahoma City Thunder after being blown out by Minnesota, but the Thunder are actively tanking. Houston currently sits at 8th in PPG (115) and 14th in offensive rating (109.1), though that team will likely be a roller coaster all year as they look to develop their young talent in Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr.
When an opposing team lacks shooting talent, it makes defensive numbers look good across the board. The eye test would dictate that the Timberwolves are shaping up to have one of their best defensive seasons in years, though it would be wildly unrealistic to project them to keep up this torrid pace. Being a top-five unit is cool for now, but Minnesota should get a reality check when it takes on the Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv on Wednesday. These first three games for the Wolves are essentially layups for any squad that has legitimate playoff aspirations. After Wednesday, the grit and mettle of the Timberwolves will be put to the test.
It is encouraging to see the influence of Patrick Beverley having an instant impact across this whole roster. The seeds of his energy find willing hosts in just about every player not named DLo, and the payoff has manifested in two solid wins to open the year. The culture is (finally) starting to shift in Minnesota. Even though the Wolves will not finish the year as a top-10 defensive unit, their commitment to at least being competitive on that end of the floor should go a long way towards getting back into the playoffs.