Last night the Minnesota Timberwolves squared off against an Atlanta Hawks team coming off a tough loss to the shorthanded Charlotte Hornets. Kelly Oubre was scorching-hot from the 3-point line, shooting 6 of 10 and helping lift the Hornets with a 28-point performance.
Before that loss, the Hawks had won eight of their last ten contests. They were starting to find their footing after a 4-9 start. The Wolves sat at 11-12 entering last night’s game, winning seven of ten as they dug their way out of their six-game losing streak. Both teams came into the night shorthanded. The Hawks were without Bogdan Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter, the Wolves without D’Angelo Russell and Patrick Beverley. But Atlanta routed the Wolves, 121-110.
The Wolves hung around with Brooklyn Friday night. Even without KAT, Finch’s squad was able to put in a fight to stay in the game with the Nets. Although the Wolves allowed 115 points, their defensive display on Friday was spectacular. So spectacular that both Kevin Durant and James Harden commented on the Wolves’ defensive intensity after the game.
“They (tried) to muck it up and stay in the game,” Durant said. “You have to appreciate that and respect that as an opponent.”
Getting respect from one of the best players in the league is huge for a Wolves team whose defensive identity seems like it appeared out of nowhere. The discourse all summer around this team concerned whether or not they would be able to get stops.
The Nets’ offense is ranked 12th, and outside of Durant and Harden, they don’t have many players on the roster who are a major priority for defenses. The Wolves could focus their attention on those two and dare someone else on the Nets to beat them. Unfortunately, Durant stepped up when it mattered most and iced the game, as he has done his whole career. But Minnesota’s effort was admirable and an encouraging sign as they got ready to welcome the Hawks to Minnesota.
Both the Wolves and the Hawks have been on a roll lately, and they’ve done it in dramatically different ways. Over the last ten games, the Hawks rank second in the league in offensive rating. Over that same span, the Wolves rank third in defensive rating. Two diametrically opposed teams met at the Target Center to clash, like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Except that metaphor would imply that either the Hawks or the Wolves are the father of the other. I’ll let you decide on that one. In any event, it was Star Wars Night at the Target Center.
The game began with Atlanta’s offense carving up Minnesota’s defense. The Hawks’ offense is second in the league in 3-point shooting at 37.8%. The Hawks ended the first quarter shooting 9 of 15 from behind the line. The Wolves have been giving up open looks at threes all season. Their mad scramble approach on that end of the floor has its benefits. They put a lot of pressure on the ball and force many turnovers. But the scheme falls apart when a team is hitting their threes like Atlanta was last night.
There have been warning signs pointing toward the Wolves having major holes in their defense. Their defensive shot profile has been concerning all season, and their top-10 defense is partially bolstered by some serious shooting luck. Timberwolves opponents are shooting just 32.1% from beyond the arc. The league average this season is 34.6%. That 2.5% difference may not seem significant, but it roughly translates to about three points per 100 possessions. Those three points would drop the Wolves from the fifth-ranked defense to the 18th.
That’s what we saw last night: Atlanta, one of the most proficient 3-point shooting teams in the league, doing what they’re best at.
All year long, the Wolves have hounded the pick-and-roll ball handler aggressively. Tonight’s prerogative was to make Trae Young’s life as difficult as possible. Young is one of the best pick-and-roll creators in the entire NBA. Towns was coming really far up on the pick-and-roll from the opening tip. Unfortunately, Young exposed the coverage. As help came from the corner, he consistently kicked it to the wide-open shooter. Time and time again, Atlanta knocked down looks from the corner. They scored 36 points on corner threes and shot 52%.
The Wolves tried some zone in the second half, but it was too little too late. The Atlanta’s shooters were already flaming hot, and the onslaught of 3-pointers continued. The Wolves wouldn’t quit, though, as Malik Beasley heated up in the fourth quarter bringing the Wolves as close as nine points in the final minute of play. Ultimately the Wolves fell by 11 points.
Due to the reliance on turnovers and the allowance of so many 3-point shots, Minnesota’s defense has become boom or bust. At its best, the defense is tenacious and creates so many turnovers that opposing offenses don’t have enough scoring opportunities to beat the Wolves. At its worst, they set the table for opponents to take as many open shots as they can get. Tonight, the Hawks had their fill, attempting 49 three-pointers.
Maybe this will be an Achilles heel for the Wolves all season. It’s no coincidence that the Hawks, Hornets, and Golden State Warriors have rocked them. Those teams rank first, second, and third, respectively, in 3-point percentage. The Timberwolves have to find a way to limit opponents’ looks from three. Otherwise, there is no way for this defense to stay in the top-10.