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Minnesota's New Defense Is This Season's Biggest Shock

Is the Timberwolves' turnaround on D for real?

The signs of a promising defense typically aren’t revealed by its mistakes. But the Timberwolves recently made one that provided a fascinating glimpse into how stout they might finally be.

Early in the third quarter of a Dec. 1 loss against the Wizards, Bradley Beal curled middle off a wide pindown set by Daniel Gafford. When Karl-Anthony Towns stepped up to take away a clean shot, Beal dropped a perfect pocket pass to Gafford as he rolled into the paint.

Before he got there, Towns reached back and committed a hard foul, ensuring there wouldn't be an easy basket while sending Gafford to the free-throw line. The result could’ve been worse. It also could’ve been a lot better. Had Towns let Gafford go, Washington’s starting center would’ve had to get past Timberwolves forward Jarred Vanderbilt, who had already scampered from the weakside to contest him at the rim.

The actual play wasn’t as meaningful as everything that happened next. D’Angelo Russell clapped his hands, yanked out his mouthguard and let Towns know he could’ve saved his foul. “You didn’t have to!” Russell shouted, citing Vanderbilt’s rotation. “He’s there! He’s there!”

Afterward, as the Timberwolves drove to the team plane, several players huddled in the back of the bus and debated for 40 minutes about defensive responsibilities, who was and wasn’t supposed to be where they were during several possessions in that night’s loss. As a young team that’s still learning how to trust each other while functioning in a brand new system that demands total cohesion, their willingness to speak up and necessitate accountability has fostered one of the more pleasant surprises NBA basketball has seen in quite some time.

For years, apathy and gloom have defined Minnesota’s defense. In the 10 seasons before this one began, they had the third-worst rating in the league. Right now they're eighth best overall and top three in the halfcourt (a place they haven’t been since Kevin Garnett won MVP in 2004).

Nobody saw this coming. In September, Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch told me he hoped they could be league average on that side. Given their history and personnel, even that felt lofty. To qualify for the play-in tournament, they’d have to score the ball.

Instead, their 24th-ranked offense has yet to click and their ability to get stops is why they’re just 1.5 games back of the five seed with a 49% chance to make the playoffs. The Timberwolves have the best defense in the NBA after they make a basket, and their defensive rating when Towns, Russell and Anthony Edwards share the floor is 99.3, aka better than the Warriors. Last year, Minnesota’s defensive rating was 116.0 when that trio played together, aka second worst in the league.

But that sudden turnaround, plus a few worrisome numbers that contradict their overall ranking, makes it worth asking if everything we’ve seen so far is genuine. Or, as opponents adjust to their new boom-or-bust style, will the first six weeks of this season be looked back upon as a mirage?

The Timberwolves are dead last in opposing free-throw rate and offensive rebounding—two metrics that aren’t typically held by any group that can claim respectability. Some of it’s thanks to their relatively small size (especially with Towns and Naz Reid spending a good amount of time outside the paint) and the mania that they’ve embraced. But they’ve also had difficulty in transition, where only three teams allow more fastbreak points per 100 possessions.

A decent portion of their possessions take place on a knife’s edge thanks to some fundamental changes to their scheme that were implemented by Minnesota’s defensive coordinator Elston Turner—in his first year with the team—and assistant coach Kevin Hanson, who handles pick-and-roll coverages.

“Twenty games in, I'd like to think the bulk of it should be sustainable,” Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch said at shootaround last Friday. “I don't know if it'll measure out at those levels, but I feel confident that we can be a plus defensive team for a year. … We've trended towards being more aggressive everywhere, just, like, less thinking, more reacting, using our speed, length, athleticism a little bit more.”

The most noticeable shift comes from Towns, who isn’t guarding ball screens in a drop nearly as often as he once did. Instead he’s up at the point of attack, showing, blitzing, shuffling his feet, waving his arms and then recovering back to his original assignment. The thought process behind it is manifold. For Towns, it helps him avoid inevitable fouls that backpedaling bigs tend to accrue when forced to absorb downhill ball handlers play after play after play.

For someone whose offensive responsibilities remain plentiful, the Wolves believe having Towns out on the perimeter instead of in a constant drop will also keep him relatively fresh. (It might not look like it on TV, but the latter can be pretty tiring when executed well by a center who isn’t just standing below the rim with his arms up.)

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So far, Towns has held up fairly well. More significantly, everyone behind him that’s thrust into rotations have justified such a high-risk, high-reward strategy. Active, feisty defenders like Patrick Beverley, Vanderbilt, Jaden McDaniels and Josh Okogie are unleashed, while those who typically aren’t known for their defense (like Edwards and Russell) have enhanced the coaching staff’s vision. The Timberwolves force more turnovers than any other team. They also rank second in deflections and charges drawn per game. Mayhem is the methodology.

Defending the second pick-and-roll on this play, Towns is up to take away Devin Booker’s shot. The Suns respond by shorting the action, with Booker passing to Jae Crowder so he can hit Deandre Ayton on the roll. But instead of allowing an easy bucket, Beverley flies over to contest the lob and gives Towns enough time to get back in the play. Minnesota eventually steals the ball.

Ball-handlers who’re baited into more difficult passes usually pay for it.

“Honestly,” James Harden said after a narrow win last Friday, “they play a crazy, scramble, double-team, triple-team defense.”

In embracing such a bold scheme, Minnesota also gives up a lot of corner threes thanks to all the help low defenders have to give against rolling bigs, but overall opponents are only shooting 32.5% behind the arc, which is third-lowestin the league. (Last year offenses drilled an NBA-high 39.2% of their threes against Minnesota.) Some of this is good fortune and some of it’s calculated. The Wolves do a pretty good job leaving poor three-point shooters alone, or closing short and not allowing any damaging blow bys.

Russell’s defense has been maligned since he entered the NBA, but he’s been a revelation here, where the team’s coaching staff has let him loose as a roaming free safety who ignores his man entirely to muck up whatever is going on with the ball. Watch how disruptive he is on this possession, which ends with him blocking Bradley Beal’s floater.

“He does a good job of knowing when he should be in or out of actions,” Finch said about Russell. “Sometimes we give those guys a freedom to just call out stuff on their own, and he has a good feel for doing that, too.”

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But the downside of all that chaos is apparent several times every game, when miscommunication yields a wide-open look. So far they’ve lucked out plenty, be it on a weakside closeout ...

… Or against smart passers who twist Minnesota’s aggression against them by putting them in an unavoidable mismatch.

The Timberwolves know they can’t rely on opponents shooting so low forever (the Hawks made 25 threes at the Target Center Monday night), but there’s still plenty of confidence in their roster-scheme relationship.

“It's a huge swing,” Finch said about the three-point drop from last year to this year. “I think a lot of it is due to the fact that our guys are really bought into [how] NBA defense comes down to your level of shot contestedness.”

This defense is far from perfect, but steadily striving in the right direction, with brains, athleticism and an increasing self-belief. For so long Minnesota hasn’t had any identity on that side of the ball that stretched beyond “terrible.” Now they’re hanging on to a game plan that doesn’t work unless executed with confidence, without hesitation. (The Blazers implemented something very similar this year and currently have the worst defense in the league.)

Even if they eventually drop toward league average in points allowed per possession, Minnesota’s defense should still be considered a major bright spot for a franchise that’s long overdue to enjoy one. 

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