Opposing Guards Posing Biggest Problems In Wolves' 5-Game Skid
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Midway through the third quarter of Friday’s game against Portland, Blazers All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge found himself in foul trouble harboring five personals and was forced to sit with 6:50 left in the frame.
At the time, the Blazers trailed by one. By the time Aldridge checked back in with 10:11 to play in the fourth Portland had regained the lead at 84-78. And in the final 2:54, with Aldridge fouled out and the Blazers trying to hold onto their eight-point lead, Portland again found a way to stave off any Minnesota runs and earned a 103-95 win.
Minnesota held a 17-6 advantage on the offensive glass, but it didn’t matter. In this loss at the Rose Garden—like each game in the Wolves’ current five-game losing streak—the opponents' back court production was the key.
“Their guards handled the game,” coach Rick Adelman said after Friday’s loss. “They’re the ones who took control of the game.”
In this current skid, the difference has been being able to contain their opponents’ guard play, and even in instances when forwards like Aldridge have been contained or in foul trouble the Wolves haven’t been able to overcome opposing teams’ perimeter scoring.
Over the past four games, opposing teams’ starting guards have outscored Minnesota’s 167-42, an average of 41.75 to 10.5 per game. The reason for this is robust on the defensive end—for a team that led the NBA in points per game allowed just 10 days ago, Minnesota continues to struggle finding ways to control their opponents’ pick and roll sets. As a result they’ve ballooned from giving up 88.5 points per game on Nov. 16 to giving up 101.5 points per night in their last four contests.
This West Coast trip has been particularly tough for the Wolves, as Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews combined for 58 points on Friday in Portland. A night later, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 44 points, including five 3-pointers by Curry, in a 96-85 victory.
No question, these particular back courts in the past week were filled with athletic, talented players who have a scorer’s touch. Facing Curry and Thompson twice, Lillard and Matthews in Portland and Ty Lawson and Andre Iguodala from Denver—all in the span of nine days—puts a strain on perimeter defense.
Still, the Wolves are looking to rectify their defensive efforts. Between their bigs and their guards, Minnesota is having trouble defending the pick and roll enough to the point where opposing guards are having big nights on a consistent basis.
Portland and Golden State alike got opportunities coming off screens, where they’d find opening thanks to late help defense or their man getting caught in the pick.
After Friday’s game, Matthews simply said: “We were taking what the defense gave us. Our screens were great and our teammates were finding us. We put the ball in the basket tonight.”
The Wolves know it, and they’re not pointing blame.
“A lot of that is that the big men have to play better defense, and that’s mostly me,” Love said. “A lot of that is me getting into practicing defensive schemes and all of us helping each other out. They can’t really take the blame. Mostly me. I have to take the blame and some of the other bigs do, too, because we have to help each other out.”
This Wolves team has battled injury, particularly losing depth at the wing with Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy both out for long stints. They’re currently giving the majority of their shooting guard minutes to a combination of second-year man Malcolm Lee, rookie Alexey Shved and veteran Josh Howard—who was unsigned until midway through November.
But aside from losing Budinger, this is essentially the same group that played together early in the season when Minnesota was holding opponents to sub-90 points per game. The key is to get back to playing strong help defense and not allowing open looks or continuous dribble penetration.
“We have the people we have; those guys are out, and we have to go out and do the job,” Adelman said. “We have to find a way. It’s not going to be easy. I told them that after the game. We have to do it with this group.”
On the perimeter, help is on the way as point guard Ricky Rubio continues to work toward his return. His presence alone on the defensive end adds a boost—not only was he statistically one of the league leaders in steals while healthy last year, but from a mindset standpoint he set the tone for aggressive, hard-nosed, scrappy play.
Minnesota has two more games on this West Coast trip to find their defensive balance. The gameplan is there, as is the ability. Execution is the third ingredient.
“It was the same scenario as last night,” Kirilenko said after Saturday’s loss. “It’s the second game in a row, and we need to fix it. We have a couple days off and we’ll just see how we can adjust.”