Wolves Test Improving Defense Against The League's Best

One of the biggest opportunities in the Wolves’ playoff series against the Rockets was the chance to measure how they stack up to the NBA’s best. So, how did they do?

There was a lot of talk floating around this series about how the Wolves were doing a good job on defense against Houston’s lethal attack. Coach Tom Thibodeau frequently praised his team’s effort on that end of the court, and the Wolves managed to neutralize James Harden and Chris Paul for large stretches of the series.  

During the regular season, the Wolves had one of the worst defensive ratings in the league, and allowed opponents to score an average of 107.3 points per game. The Rockets, on the other hand, averaged 112.4 points per game in the regular season.

In their five games against the Rockets, the Timberwolves gave up 104, 102, 105, 119, and 122 points (an average of 110.4, if you’re into that kind of thing). That’s pretty good. The stats don’t tell the whole story either. In this series, the Wolves were essentially doomed by bad defense in three different quarters: they gave up 37 in the second quarter of Game 2, 50 in the third quarter of Game 4, and 37 in the fourth quarter of Game 5. 

Take away those quarters, and the Wolves put together an incredibly impressive defensive performance against one of the best offenses in the NBA.

Of course, you can’t take away those quarters. The thing about defense is you have to do it all the time, especially against a team like the Rockets. Clearly some things worked, and some things didn’t. With such a limited sample size, and playing against only one team, it’s hard to find much useful information in the statistics (and defensive stats are notoriously hard to trust anyway), so here are a few things that jumped out to me using the good old “eye test.” 

I know Andrew Wiggins has a unique ability to frustrate Wolves fans, but he showed in this series how incredibly valuable he can be on the defensive end. Wiggins has been maligned for his defense, but he is so long and athletic he truly could become an elite defender.

One of the reasons he’s so tantalizing on that end is that he can defend so many positions. He’s quick enough to hang with guards and strong enough to go toe to toe with forwards. Watch him totally annihilate P.J. Tucker here when Tucker tries to take him into the post:

Also, at the beginning of Game 4 it was clear that the Rockets were trying to isolate Harden onto Wiggins, hoping that Harden’s trickery would serve him better against Wiggins than Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague. On three separate possessions, Wiggins totally shut down Harden in isolation. I understand that he’s a work in progress, and has to get more consistent, but there are very few players in the league that can shut down Harden at all, let alone on a consistent basis. Needless to say, Houston stopped trying that switch.

But not all of the Wolves’ defensive effectiveness came from individual effort. After Game 5, Thibodeau commented on the effectiveness of the Wolves’ smaller lineups.

“I like our small lineup a lot in the second quarter, I thought they played great,” he said. “We built the ten-point lead with that group and then when I took Jimmy out we lost it very quickly. We all understand how important he is to the team, but I like the look of that group in terms of it changes the speed of the game and it changes the things we can do. One thing about Jimmy at the 4 is you’re not sacrificing defense.”

Yes, Butler is in many ways the emotional heart and soul of this Wolves team, but he’s also one of the most important chess pieces in playing a strategic defensive game. The lineup Thibodeau is referring to is an oddly effective group of Teague, Derrick Rose, Jamal Crawford, Butler, and Karl-Anthony Towns. This is a prototypical modern NBA lineup, and there’s a lot to break down in terms of what it brings to the Wolves on offense, but the group really held its own on defense as well.

Butler and Rose are strong enough to guard opposing forwards, and that flexibility allows for a ton of switching. The Wolves also got creative later in the series, altering the timing with which they brought double teams on Harden and Paul, and the speed and veteran savvy of this group gave them the ability to rotate very quickly if the Rockets moved to exploit the double team. 

In this clip, the Wolves’ first option, to confuse Harden with a late double team, works perfectly, leading to a steal, but look how quickly Rose is ready to move to contest a potential three as well. Of course, a few more passes and the Rockets could have probably found an opening—that’s always the risk with double teams—but the Wolves are betting here on their ability to create confusion and force Houston to panic. It works.

This lineup is mostly constructed to be a nightmare for the Rockets on offense, but you can’t win without defense, and this super-fast, super-switchy group seriously confused the Rockets. It’s somewhat counterintuitive because at first blush one of the Wolves’ strengths is their size, but if they can work this lineup even more, perhaps switching out Tyus Jones (a stronger defender) for Crawford, it could be a neat trick for them to pull out next season.

This group has a long way to go on the defensive end of the floor. They need to get more consistent, and better at knowing their coverages, especially during the regular season when they don’t get to play the same team five games in a row. Towns also has to improve. Too often he was bullied by Capela in the post, or baited into misguided help decisions. But the experimentation that the Wolves were forced into by these frustratingly good Rockets might bear some fruit, and the individual development is likewise encouraging. If the Wolves can become an above-average defense, and maintain the level of offensive potency they built this season, they’ll be making a deep playoff run in no time.