Timberwolves' defense starting to show teeth

BY foxsports • January 19, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — There was no telling what Rick Adelman's mood would be like late Wednesday night.

Sure, his team had just defeated the Detroit Pistons, 93-85, but it had trailed for much of the game, and its offense was stagnant at best for much of the night. It was a win, yes, but a shaky one at times, far from a coach's dream.

Adelman didn't see it that way, though. The first words out of his mouth — noting that it was a strong win — exposed his happiness with the way his team handled itself, battling back and never letting the game fall out of reach. It was a different kind of win than the Timberwolves have had all season, one owed almost entirely to defense.

"We keep talking about being consistent in what they're doing," Adelman said. "The effort, every night to play the same. That's what was good last night is we had a terrible first half offensively, but we didn't get blown out."

The team Adelman took over this December was coming off a season in which it ranked last in the league in points allowed, averaging 107.7 per game. It was also 27th in defensive efficiency, ahead of only Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto.

It was a frustrating situation, a team with one of the league's top scorers that was simply unable to stop its opponents.

"They obviously did not have any success the last couple of years because they didn't defend very well," Adelman said. "They were last in the league in so many categories, so it was easy to get their attention."

Adelman has their attention, and the Timberwolves have truly bought in to the coach's defensive mindset. After 14 games this season, the team is 11th in the NBA in points allowed per game, with 92.5, and seventh in defensive efficiency. The Timberwolves have held opponents to shooting 31.3 percent from beyond the three-point arc and 43.2 percent from the field, ranking eighth and 10th, respectively, in those categories.

Defense has certainly contributed to each of the Timberwolves' wins. In all five, they've held their opponent to fewer than 90 points, and in their last four games they've allowed an average of just 86 points. But Wednesday night was the first time that defense was the main factor behind the victory.

"We didn't really knock down a high percentage of shots last night, so we had to step up on the defensive end," Love said. "Something had to give."

Love said that his team's defensive resurgence has been satisfying. After four years, it's great to see the Timberwolves be accountable at both ends of the court, he said, and he attributed much of the success to a shift in the team's mindset and relationships. And though Adelman said it's hard to tell a talented offensive player that he won't play unless he steps up his defense--"There's also another end of the court."—his team has realized that it has to be responsible for every aspect of its game.

Perhaps Ricky Rubio has the most refreshing perspective as a newcomer who's somewhat removed from his team's offensive struggles. A talented passer, basketball has always been about more than scoring for the rookie, and that mentality undoubtedly helps him defensively.

"Sometimes you're not scoring the ball, but there are a lot of things to do to help your team to win," Rubio said.

And against Detroit, Rubio's teammates realized they'd have to find different ways to contribute, especially in the fourth quarter, when they held the Pistons to 31.3 percent shooting. When it mattered most, the team knew that for some reason, shots weren't falling, so it needed more than anything to focus on defense.

"It just shows that even on nights whenever you're not making shots, you have to continue to play defense because otherwise you're going to get beat," Antony Tolliver said after the win. "Tonight we showed that the defensive end definitely kept us at the game, and at the end it allowed us to build the lead and get away with the win."

For now that's how they'll look at it—that they got away with a win. But if the Timberwolves can continue their defensive improvement, that outlook might change. Defense might become more of a tool than a safety net.

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