The Minnesota Timberwolves’ defense has provided a much-needed spark and has led them to a 3-1 record since the All-Star break.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are re-establishing their identity. An identity that perfectly mirrors their head coach.
When Tom Thibodeau was announced as president of basketball operations and head coach back in April 2016, the first thing that came to everyone’s mind was defense. Everyone was expecting Thibodeau to immediately teach the young players of Minnesota how to play defense.
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Last season the Timberwolves ranked 23rd in the NBA by allowing 106 points per game. Through the first 57 games this season it hadn’t appeared as if they had made any improvement. The Timberwolves were allowing 105.7 points per game this season.
Even with giving up a whopping 142 points to the Rockets, Minnesota is only allowing 98.5 points per game since the All-Star break. That ranks fourth in the NBA over that span.
What happens when you take out the Rockets game? Minnesota would only be giving up 84 points per game, which would rank first by a large margin.
Feb 24, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio (9) and Dallas Mavericks guard Wesley Matthews (23) wrestle over a loose ball in the third quarter at Target Center. The Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Dallas Mavericks 97-84. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Not surprisingly the Timberwolves are 3-1 since the All-Star break and are looking to make a push into the playoffs.
The key to Minnesota’s defensive turnaround has been getting back to the fundamentals. The active hands of Timberwolves defenders have led to a significant drop in their opponents field goal percentage.
In the last four games the Timberwolves are holding their opponents to 43 percent shooting. That ranks third in the NBA. Before the All-Star break, Timberwolves opponents were shooting 47.2 percent, 28th in the NBA.
Having active hands may seem like an over-simplified answer to the Timberwolves’ success, but sometimes answers are not complex.
When re-watching film, the aspect that sticks out most to me is that the Timberwolves always have their hands up on defense, especially when guarding on the ball. The Timberwolves ensure that they are contesting the shot or the pass with a hand in the face of their man.
Take the following play for example. Karl-Anthony Towns is matched up on the smaller, quicker Harrison Barnes. Towns understands this so he gives Barnes an extra step while keeping his hands up at the same time.
This allows Towns to maximize the length advantage he has over Barnes and forces Barnes to shoot a contested jumper.
The result is a missed jump shot and a defensive rebound for Minnesota.
The rebounding has also been key for the Timberwolves. Minnesota has done a tremendous job of securing defensive boards since the All-Star break. Before the break, Minnesota ranked 29th overall with 31.9 defensive rebounds per 100 possessions.
Since the break, Minnesota has averaged 37.4 defensive rebounds per 100 possessions, which ranks first.
A main reason to the increase in defensive rebounds has been the Timberwolves crashing the glass. They consistently have four defenders drop into the paint area when the shot goes up. Gorgui Dieng has done a tremendous job as well at always boxing out his man.
Dieng and Towns level of play have also been a big factor to the Timberwolves’ success. Thibodeau has really used their mobility as an asset on the defensive end of the floor.
When Dieng and Towns are on the floor it gives the Timberwolves’ two feared shot blockers. This is something that is invaluable as it constantly keeps the defense thinking about where either player is.
In Thibodeau’s system he asks the guards to go over the ball screens and recover to their man. In order for this to happen though, the big men must be able to step out on the screens and keep the smaller, quicker ball handlers in front of them until the defensive guard is able to recover.
Dieng and Towns have been doing an excellent job of this. They are routinely able to step out and allow sufficient time for the screened defender to recover to his man.
On the play below, Dieng’s man sets a ball screen on Ricky Rubio. Dieng is able to move his feet and keep Seth Curry in front of him. He even gets the steal to start the fast break for the Timberwolves.
Fighting through screens is hard work and is something that is not always possible to do. That’s why the Timberwolves switch on the majority of screens, on ball and off, that involve the 1-3 positions. They are able to do this because of the length of the players on the court.
With the exception of Tyus Jones, the rest of the Timberwolves’ guards are able to switch interchangeably onto the 1-3 positions.
Communication on defense is necessary in order to switch successfully. You can tell that the Timberwolves’ players are getting more and more comfortable in Thib’s system because of the lack of breakdowns on screens.
The Timberwolves’ defenders have done a good job of talking to one another on screens and switching or fighting through them.
Tom Thibodeau is finally making his mark on the Timberwolves that everyone expected. The team is playing with grit, energy, and passion that hasn’t been seen for a long time in Minnesota.
With the Timberwolves’ offensive firepower at the top of their lineup the defense is the key to their success.
If Minnesota continues to replicate the persona of their coach they will be able to sneak into the playoffs.
The Warriors have lost two consecutive games and Kevin Durant is out with an injury. They suddenly look a lot more vulnerable than they did a week ago. Who knows what could happen once the playoffs begin?