On media day, a reporter asked Chris Finch about the Minnesota Timberwolves’ identity heading into the 2023-24 season.
“We need to be defensively led,” Finch responded from behind the microphone.
We have a lot of individual defenders. Certainly, Rudy is the backline. Offensively, we have to be more mindful of our spacing and figure out how to utilize KAT in that way best. We need to be a little bit tougher. More 50-50 balls, I don’t think we got enough of those last year. Get a little bit grittier and play a little bigger like a big team should. Pound the glass on both ends and be a little bit more physical in the paint.
The Timberwolves are coming off a season where they ranked 10th in defensive rating. That was an improvement from their 13th-ranked defense in 2021-22. However, the goal when they traded for Rudy Gobert was to become a significantly better defensive team, and moving up only three spots seemed like a letdown. Gobert wasn’t healthy to start the year, and Minnesota had issues playing together. As a result, the team underwhelmed most expectations.
Since the Timberwolves’ first-round exit against the Denver Nuggets last season, there has been a stark flip in the script. Nine games into the 2023-24 season, the Wolves rank No. 1 in defensive rating and have held four of their opponents under 100 points. Much to Finch’s enjoyment, his team has found their identity as a defensive team. However, another component of the team’s identity has gotten less attention, but it’s proving equally valuable to Minnesota in keeping up its red-hot start to the season.
The Timberwolves opened up a two-game set against the Golden State Warriors Sunday evening in San Francisco. The early story from the game involved Minnesota’s lackadaisical approach when crashing the glass. However, that has become unusual. The Wolves rank second in defensive rebounds per game.
“Just boxing out, it’s pretty simple,” said Gobert when asked about the early rebounding woes.
It’s tough to ask the guys who chase the shooters to go then and box out, so it’s on the other three guys to do the dirty work. [The Warriors] have guys that are excellent at doing those things, like [Kevon] Looney, Draymond [Green], even [Jonathan] Kuminga and [Gary] Peyton. All those guys are going to the offensive glass. We’ve got to meet them early and just go get the boards. Once we are able to do that, we are able to attack them in transition.
Minnesota allowed Golden State to corral 11 offensive rebounds in the first half, which generated 11 second-chance points. Most of those missed rebounds were long, meaning they came from three-point attempts.
Following a Dario Šarić putback layup and a Stephen Curry steal and finish, the Wolves gave up four points in the three seconds of the first half, which was a result of poor execution. Short scoring bursts like that can help the pendulum swing in favor of one side. However, Minnesota put together another solid second half to wrap up its sixth win in a row, 116-110.
“It was just a possession game, really,” Finch said postgame.
We had to take control of the possession game. You’re never going to win a game against a team like this if you don’t at least hold serve in the possession game. We rebounded well in the second half and didn’t turn it over. The first half was just ugly, the way they outrebounded us and the turnovers we made. Once we got that corrected, I still think there is a ton of room for improvement out there, but at least we weren’t shooting ourselves in the foot and giving them second chances.
In the second half, the Wolves yielded eight offensive rebounds and nine second-chance points and cut their turnovers down from nine in the first half to five. They still made mistakes, but it was evident that when Minnesota prioritizes rebounding, everything else follows suit.
Sunday night was the first time one of Minnesota’s opponents had outrebounded them this season. They tied the New Orleans Pelicans with 45 rebounds team earlier in the year. But aside from that, the Wolves had a clean 7-0 season rebound advantage until Sunday.
The Timberwolves are on a six-game winning streak and sit second in the NBA’s latest power rankings. The players are buying into what Finch is selling – becoming a team that relies on their size and defensive capabilities. The defensive numbers have driven Minnesota’s identity, but dominating glass has been just as important.