Defensive Tone Set In Training Camp Pays Off In Preseason

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Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

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Brandon Roy admittedly joined the Timberwolves this offseason in part because of Rick Adelman’s reputation. Talking with peers around the league, Roy constantly heard superlatives about Adelman’s style, the way he works with players and the type of atmosphere he was helping build in Minnesota.

And based on the coach’s track record in previous positions, including the scoring juggernaut he oversaw with the Sacramento Kings in the early 2000s, Roy knew the reputation Adelman squads had for offensive production.

So the team’s early emphasis during Training Camp in Mankato surprised him.

“We really got after it defensively the first four days,” Roy said. “You can tell that guys I think in the first preseason game were really covering for one another. We’re never going to be the best individual defenders, but if we continue to play good team defense we can make it harder for our opponents.”

It was only preseason and the games have not yet counted, but Minnesota did set the tone for their defensive mindset throughout their seven-game exhibition slate. They led the league by allowing 80.86 points per game—leading Chicago by 6.28 points—and held an NBA-best 11.58 point differential. Not only did Minnesota’s offense continue to improve as the preseason went on, but the defense became the focal point.

It’s not a surprise to coach Rick Adelman, because through much of the first half of last season the Wolves did put together a stretch of efficient defensive play—particularly fourth quarter defense during the first third of the season. That changed in the final 20 games, and as a result the team sputtered to a 5-20 finish in their final 25 games after being above .500 and in playoff contention in early March.

If anything, those defensive hardships set the tone for how Minnesota approached its offseason mentality, moves and objectives.

“Hopefully the players understand this is how we’re going to win is defending consistently every night,” Adelman said. “And we’ve done that.”

Wolves assistant coach Terry Porter said all things considering, meaning playing without Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio during the preseason, the Wolves have responded and put together a 5-2 exhibition stretch that they can build on. But those games no longer matter, nor do they count, and the team has enough to work on at both ends of the floor to keep them occupied heading into Friday’s opener against Sacramento.

The key is having a roster that buys into the importance of team defense, and that’s what the Wolves have on this roster.

There’s no questioning this team has confidence it can score. When the roster is healthy, having a combination of Rubio and Love coupled with the three-time All-Star Roy and center Nikola Pekovic poised for a big year, Minnesota sees this squad as a collection of players who can put up big numbers.

Add in a defense-first approach, and the Wolves hope they have the right combination for success.

In talking with players at practice, they all preach the same mentality: The Timberwolves are focused on team defense.

“We’re all looking to help each other,” forward Dante Cunningham said. “It’s not one guy who’s going to necessarily lock down someone per se, but we have a lot of guys that are going to be able to help and be in the right position to make sure that our team is going to be a strong defensive team.”

More than anything, defense is a mindset. If a team doesn’t commit as a whole to the cause, holes open up and opposing teams find ways to the basket. Cunningham, for one, is a player who seems to light up when talking about being gritty on the defensive end. And he’s not the only one who takes that approach on this roster.

Center Greg Stiemsma was brought on board to add a shot-blocking presence in the paint. Andrei Kirilenko has had a reputation for being an all-purpose player in the league, and Lou Amundson is another addition who adds toughness and grit around the basket.

The Wolves are buying into trusting one another to get the job done.

“It’s the guys being in the right place at the right time, helping each other” guard Luke Ridnour said. “In this league it’s hard to stop guys one on one, but as a team if you play good help defense you’re going to be pretty good. That’s what we’re going to have to do this season.”

Perhaps the biggest part of the equation is the fact that Minnesota isn’t satisfied with where they’re at defensively. Despite having good performances in the preseason, those games have different lineups. Wins and losses don’t matter.

The key is continuing to get better every day, and both Ridnour and Adelman stressed that about how the Wolves are improving during the preseason.

Kirilenko said the week of preparation heading into the regular season opener has been beneficial for fine-tuning.

“We could get better, consistency-wise,” Kirilenko said. “We have good stretches and bad stretches. I hope we can concentrate on the good stretches a little bit more.”

The focus was established early, and the Wolves look to bring that defensive philosophy into the 2012-13 campaign. Roy said focusing on defense early in Training Camp set the tone.

“When we came in and played defense those three or four days, I know our mindset was, ‘OK, now I know what coach wants to do this year. He wants to be strong defensively,’” Roy said. “You could tell those first three or four games we were better defensively than we were offensively, and that was the reason that we were in those games. And that was encouraging, because you know you might miss shots, you might turn the ball over but if you play good defense you have a chance to win many games.”

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