Uncovering The Wolves' Defensive Identity

If you were at or watched the Wolves’ Thursday night win over the Portland Trail Blazers, there’s a good chance you’re still trying to come to terms with how well the Wolves shot the ball in their 116-102 win. Rightfully so.

The Wolves shot 49.4% from the field (44-for-89), 40.6% from 3-point range (13-for-32) and finished with six players in double-digit scoring figures. Mind you, this was even without leading scorer Karl-Anthony Towns (knee) who has not played since Dec. 13.

The eye test and Thursday night’s box score will tell you how terrific the Wolves’ offense was in their 15th win of the season (fifth in eight games), but don’t overlook the main reason the Wolves blew the T-Blazers out at Target Center — their relentless defense that’s becoming a staple to this Wolves team.

For much of the 2010s, the Wolves had to rely on their offense to stay afloat against opposing teams, but they entered the 2019-20 season wanting to change their defensive identity — hence the hiring of defense savant and former Portland assistant coach David Vanterpool. The defense has had its ups and downs in the first 37 games of the season but has been superb since mid-December when losing Towns’ offensive production eliminated the option of solely leaning on their offense to try and win games.

“That’s who we are. We’ve discovered the identity that our defense is going to carry us,” Josh Okogie said after Thursday’s win. “When Wig(gins)and KAT were out, we knew that was a lot of scoring that we probably couldn’t make up for. The only way to supplement that was to grind and make sure other teams weren’t scoring and feed off our defense to give us offense. That’s kind of what kept us in the hunt while those two were out.

“We formed that identity, and everybody is on board.”

Since Dec. 12, the Wolves hold the league’s best defensive rating (102.4), are sixth in rebounds per game (47.0), second in steals (9.8), fourth in blocks (6.4), fourth in opponent field goal percentage (43.4%), second in opponent 3-point percentage (32.0), and second in opponent turnovers per game (17.8). Before we get too crazy with these defensive stats, we have to add a little more context. Since Dec. 12, the Wolves have only played four teams with a top-15 offensive rating (Clippers, Nuggets, T-Blazers 2x and Bucks). However, the Wolves have struggled to shut down lacking offenses in the past, so it’s great to see the defense coming out strong no matter who the Wolves’ opponent is.

Thursday night was one of the Wolves’ best defensive performances (and all-around games) this season. The T-Blazers are shooting 45% from the field this season, but the Wolves held them to 36.5% shooting, making Thursday Portland’s second-worst shooting performance of the season (they shot a season-low 36.0% against the Thunder on Dec. 8). To give credit where credit is due, I spent Friday morning re-watching Thursday night’s game and picking out some of my favorite defensive plays of the night. Here’s what I narrowed it down to.

First Quarter: Portland outscores Minnesota 34-28

Minnesota wins rebounding battle 16-11. Portland turnovers: 2. Minnesota steals: 0. Minnesota blocks: 2

The first quarter was Portland’s most successful offensive frame. Heck, even Hassan Whiteside made a 3-pointer. Portland matched Minnesota’s energy in the first 12 minutes, and I’m sure head coach Ryan Saunders didn’t include giving up 34 points in the opening quarter in his game plan, but there were still a few positives to take away from the Wolves’ first-quarter defense.

Five minutes, 30 seconds into the game, four-time All-Star Damian Lillard dribbles down the court and calls for a screen from Carmelo Anthony. Anthony sets a screen on Shabazz Napier, but Robert Covington shows on the screen to slow down an attacking Lillard — one of the most frightful threats in the league for opposing defenses. With little room for creation, Lillard passed it off to Anthony who is met by Covington. Anthony took Covington one-on-one and connected from the free-throw line, but the Wolves will take their chances with Covington defending an isolation move, and the box score shows Covington got his revenge plenty of times throughout the night. We’ll look at a specific example later.

A little over two minutes later, Whiteside drops in the paint, noticing Lillard coming his way. Noah Vonleh is defending Whiteside at this point in the game but notices the weakside help he’s receiving from Covington and decides to show on Lillard who’s threatening to drive past Jeff Teague. Lillard hesitates a little more than he typically would with Vonleh showing, throws a poor pass to Whiteside that’s deflected by the Wolves’ center and eventually poked by Covington before the T-Blazers commit a shot clock violation. Vonleh and Covington have only played 88 minutes together this season, but I was extremely impressed with the confidence Vonleh had in Covington’s help defense that allowed him to leave shade off of Whiteside and meet Lillard on the drive.

After the game, Saunders said he likes that his players are talking more amongst themselves. That usually starts with Covington. You don’t need to be playing with him to know that Covington is always talking on defense. If you’re in the Target Center or watching a game on Fox Sports North, there’s a good chance you’re going to hear Covington directing a teammate on the defensive end at some point. His leadership and stability on the defensive end are starting to rub off on his teammates, and his communication only helps the Wolves’ defensive chemistry.

Second Quarter: Minnesota outscores Portland 31-13 (!!!)

Minnesota wins rebounding battle 13-10. Portland turnovers: 4. Minnesota steals: 4. Minnesota blocks: 1.

The Wolves completely opened up the game in the second quarter. Portland’s 13 points (on 27.3% shooting) was the lowest scoring output from a Wolves opponent this season. Meanwhile, the Wolves shot 56.5% from the field. Target Center was pretty, pretty loud.

Okogie got the Wolves’ second-quarter defense started by picking off a pass from C.J. McCollum to Anthony 23 seconds into the second frame. After the steal, Okogie made a smooth bounce pass to Jarrett Culver in transition. As the Wolves’ defense has improved, so has Culver’s offensive production. His and his teammates’ defense is often responsible for those monstrous Culver dunks we’ve grown accustomed to of late. The dunks might get more roars from the crowd, but they wouldn’t be possible without hustle plays like Okogie’s in this example.

“We’re a better offensive team when we defend,” Saunders said after Thursday’s win. “It’s easier to go against defenses when they’re in transition or broken, I guess you could say.”

At the 10:33 mark, Naz Reid gave one of his better defensive plays of the night and showed on a screen set for Mario Hezonja. The Wolves’ center baited the T-Blazers’ forward into a poor mid-range jump shot attempt, and in doing so, followed the Wolves’ system to a tee.

Three minutes later, Anfernee Simons tried to get Portland’s offense going in transition but he was met by a disciplined Napier before he could get too far into the lane. Napier stayed in front, refused to give Simons the contact he was hoping for, making for an awkward, missed layup instead. Since Dec. 12, Napier has the third-best net rating (5.7) on the Wolves’ team.

I have two pages worth of notes for this quarter. Bear with me.

Next, we move to the 5:36 mark of the second quarter. Lillard begins Portland’s possession by ignoring a screen offered by Whiteside and dribbles left where he meets Gorgui Dieng in the paint instead. Bad choice. Lillard then kicks to Kent Bazemore who’s stopped by Covington and has to make a quick pass to Anthony Tolliver in the corner. However, Dieng is already there to meet Tolliver who can’t fire off a quick 3 in time. Dieng contests Tolliver’s shot, which is recovered by a looming Covington.

“Gorgui is a veteran presence defensively where he understands that communication is the main key defensively,” Saunders said. “He’s a guy who will call things out continuously, will call coverages, and he does make it easier on the young guys a lot of times.”

“Man, I love playing with Gorgui,” Okogie said. “He’s always got your back on defense. Even if he has to leave his man to cover your back, even if he ends up looking bad, that unselfishness of him is just great, man. I’d run through a wall for him.”

Here comes Covington’s revenge on Anthony. With 4:22 left on the clock in the second quarter, Portland runs an out-of-bounds play. Lillard inbounds to Anthony who’s looking for another isolation bucket. The remaining T-Blazers clear out of the paint and allow Anthony to do his thing. Anthony takes a couple of dribbles toward the baseline, but Covington stays disciplined. Running out of space, Anthony has to spin toward the lane where he’s met by three other Wolves defenders. He gets too deep in the paint, tries an up-and-under move but gets rim stuffed before committing a frustration foul on Covington who grabbed the rebound. A lot of defenders would have committed a foul before Anthony missed the shot on his own. Not Covington.

The T-Blazers were stuck on eight points in the second quarter for the first 8.5 minutes of the frame. That’s tough. Lillard finally got them to 11 points by hitting a 3 at the 1:51 mark, but the Wolves stopped the all-star once again on Portland’s next possession. Lillard used a screen from Whiteside, but Dieng shows on the All-Star point guard while Teague rides his left shoulder. Dieng, not threatened by Whiteside’s outside shooting, takes away Lillard’s driving lane while Teague forces him into taking a long 2-point shot in the corner that even Lillard couldn’t make look good.

Third Quarter: Minnesota outscores Portland 41-27

Minnesota wins the rebounding battle 11-9. Portland turnovers: 3. Minnesota steals: 2. Minnesota blocks: 3.

The Wolves shot over 60% from the field in the third while still holding the T-Blazers below 35% shooting. Not a bad combination.

A lot of Dieng’s stellar defensive plays are built out of hustle and discipline. Forty seconds into the third quarter, he didn’t have to do too much physical work to grab the first steal of the frame, but the steal indicated he had done some pregame studying. Lillard dribbled down the court, looking for a backdoor cutter, but Dieng was in the perfect position to snatch Lillard’s pass and turn it into a transition look for Culver who was fouled before his shot. The Wolves’ possession eventually ended with a 3-pointer for Covington. It all starts with the defense.

The Wolves’ defensive chemistry was present throughout the third, and we were reminded of it once again at the 3:24 mark. Teague was passed by Lillard on the drive, but Vonleh was there to bail his teammate out. Vonleh got in front of Lillard (not an easy task), which allowed a trailing Teague to come from behind and block Lillard’s shot attempt. That was the Wolves’ sixth block of the night, and they still had an entire quarter to play.

Ten seconds later, Wiggins attempted an across-court pass that was snatched by Jaylen Hoard. But before the T-Blazers’ rookie could get to midcourt, he was met by Okogie who was already in a defensive position. That’s one of the more intimidating things you can run into in the league. Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop stopped Hoard, and Okogie turned the loose ball into a layup.

But that wasn’t even the best Okogie play of the quarter.

We ended the third with a trademark Josh Okogie sequence. In Minnesota’s final possession of the quarter, Teague found Covington for a 3-point look, which rattled out. Okogie leaped to find the loose ball and wrestled Whiteside to the ground while going for the rebound. He tied the ball up but lost the jump ball to the 7-footer. Lillard grabbed the loose ball and looked for a last shot for Simons who was racing back in transition. However, Okogie made it back on time to block Portland’s last attempt of the quarter before the buzzer. His efforts were applauded by all of his teammates and fans who were reminded of why they stan for Josh Okogie with that play.

“I thought Josh was great tonight,” Saunders said. “I thought he was awesome. He’s a guy that feeds off of the crowd, too, and I think the crowd feeds off of him.”

“(Okogie’s) back to Non-Stop,” Covington said. “That’s what we need. Him with that second unit, he’s the anchor on defense.”

Fourth Quarter: Portland outscores Minnesota 28-16

Minnesota wins the rebounding battle 16-11. Portland turnovers: 1. Minnesota steals: 1. Minnesota blocks: 3.

The Wolves rested all of their starters aside from Culver in the final quarter after earning a 100-74 lead at the end of the third quarter, and their defense wasn’t quite as polished as a result. However, the Wolves held onto their lead — which was something they’d been harping on all week — and had some fun on the bench, too.

The Wolves will now head to Houston where their defense will need to be just as strong against James Harden and the Rockets’ second-best offensive rating. But matching the Rockets’ offensive production shouldn’t be the Wolves’ top priority. Defensive buy-in will be the main cog in landing a road win on Saturday.

“We can’t outscore everyone,” Covington said. “We’ve got tremendous talent, but you have to be able to get down and get stops. That’s what it comes down to. We’ve got the talent, we’ve got the length, we’ve got the athleticism to where we can do a lot of different things, but how committed are we? We kind of got away from it, but now we’re starting to trend back toward how we started the season. We’ve seen what we’re capable of and we’ve seen what we weren’t doing, but now we’re back to doing the little things.

“We just keep buying in and letting days add up.”

The Wolves will face the Rockets in Houston at 4 p.m. CT on Saturday. You can tune in on Fox Sports North or 830 WCCO.