Wolves' 12th-Ranked Defense Tasked With Defending Dallas

by Katie Davidson
Digital Content Associate

A quarter of the 2019-20 NBA season is nearly complete, and the Timberwolves are currently 12th in defensive rating and third in blocks per game.

The Wolves were ranked 14th in defensive rating on Dec. 3, 2018, and that was while they were in the midst of winning six of their seven games held between Nov. 23 and Dec. 5. For a refresher, that stretch was right after Robert Covington joined the team and appeared to make the Wolves’ defensive woes disappear.

One year later, Ryan Saunders credits his team’s defensive improvement to its pick-and-roll coverage.

“Karl (-Anthony Towns) has done a good job this year of being in a place of either contesting at the rim or impacting the basketball as opposed to being in what we as coaches like to call ‘no man’s land,’ which I do think helps our block rate,” Saunders said at Tuesday’s practice. “But then we also have a number of wings and guards who … we put a premium on rearview contests on our team. Getting through ball screens, getting through actions, not giving up on plays, and with that, we have some positive length so guys are able to get their hands on some loose balls.”

The Wolves are currently averaging 6.6 blocks per game, which puts them just behind the Lakers (7.3) and Magic (6.7). Towns leads the Wolves squad with 1.4 blocks per game, but Andrew Wiggins comes in right behind him with 1.2 per game, which is one of the many career-high averages Wiggins has recorded in the first quarter of this season.

But the Wolves’ defense will be tasked with one of its most daunting challenges yet on Wednesday: slowing down the versatile Dallas Mavericks.

The Mavericks currently lead the league in offensive rating (116.0), can be a nuisance in the paint, attempt 40.4 3-pointers per game, and shoot 36.1% from beyond the arc.

Oh, and not to mention, they also list Luka Doncic on their roster.

Saunders referred to Doncic as “the best finisher in the league” at Tuesday’s practice, while Jeff Teague said the reigning Rookie of the Year is “arguably the best player in the NBA right now.”

 “(Doncic’s) size is a major challenge for us, and it’s a major challenge how he handles the ball,” Saunders said. “This year he’s added even more to his game where he takes a lot of Harden-esque shots. Coach (Rick) Carlisle is someone I have so much respect for for a number of reasons, but he puts (Doncic) in situations to be successful, too. Middle of the floor, getting switches and matchups that they like, along the sideline 3-point line. But he’s also an elite finisher at the rim, so that’s just something that adds to a guy who’s a great distributor but also a great 3-point shooter. He just poses a major, major challenge.”

Doncic is averaging 30.6 points per game (third-best in the league only behind James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo), is shooting 48.3% from the field, and hits 73% of his shots taken in the restricted area. He’s also averaging a fourth-best 13.4 points per game when used as the Mavericks’ ballhandler in pick-and-roll action. On top of that, he’s a tremendous distributor and is only second to LeBron James in assists per game (9.6).

"It’s like no one can stop him right now,” Teague said. He’s pretty much correct.

The Nuggets held Doncic to a season-low 12 points on 3 of 12 shooting back on Oct. 29, but Dallas still managed to defeat Denver 109-106. Doncic may have had his worst game of the year against Denver, but Maxi Kleber, Delon Wright, Tim Hardaway, Justin Jackson and Jalen Brunson combined for 61 points off the bench to come through for their team.

It’s unlikely that Doncic will ever be held to 12 points in another 2019-20 game, but limiting his teammates’ production will be key for the Wolves in Wednesday’s game. To do so, the Wolves will focus on creating one-way closeouts to lessen the threat of Doncic’s kick-outs to his teammates who’re waiting for their shots along the perimeter.

“We have to make sure that on the perimeter and on the help-side we’re starting in so we can react in, show a crowd, and then get back out there as opposed to starting out, coming back in, and getting back out. That’s a little over a second usually that you’re adding to your closeout time.”

If the Wolves can slow down Doncic’s teammates with strong, initial defensive positioning and commit to contesting whatever comes their way in the paint, their defensive improvements may garner some more recognition.

Showing Support For Culver And Bates-Diop

Jarrett Culver is averaging 11 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 steals per game when starting for an NBA team with a winning record. He’s shown that he has what it takes to play in this league, and Wolves fans should be excited about his future with this franchise.

However, his free-throw shooting can’t be completely ignored. Culver has only made 17 of 42 free-throw attempts this season, good for 40.5% from the charity stripe. Those numbers may be concerning to some but they aren’t to the people who are around Culver every day and know how dedicated he is to improving his game.

“(It’s) not a concern because (Culver) puts the work in,” Saunders said without hesitation. “I’m going to continue to be who I am and that’s positive in nature. He is somebody who is going to be a very good player in this league, and I tell him that every day just so he remembers that. But he knows that, and you feel confident in yourself if you’re putting the work in. He’s right behind us; he’s the first guy on the court. He’s putting the work in.”

“He’s a good shooter,” Teague said. “It’s just a mental thing. He’s going to start knocking them down. He works hard and practices all day. (Culver’s) probably shooting free throws right now as we speak.”

Once again, Teague was right. Culver can typically be found practicing his free throws at the start of every practice long before his teammates make their way to the gym, which was the case on Tuesday. His commitment to refining his craft is undeniable — just like his promise.

Robert Covington also addressed the media before Tuesday’s practice and was asked to describe where he’s seen the largest improvement in Keita Bates-Diop’s game.

“Just (Bates-Diop’s) overall confidence,” Covington said. “He’s getting more and more reps, and you’ve got to be able to be out there for you to get comfortable, and that’s what it’s been about for him. He’s been shooting the ball very well. He’s been putting in the work, and once you put in the work, results speak for themselves.”

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