MINNEAPOLIS – What a difference two weeks can make in the NBA world.
Two weeks ago, the Timberwolves were searching for like in what quickly became what felt like a lost season. The team had lost 11 games in a row, Karl-Anthony Towns was missing with a knee injury, they couldn’t figure out how to score, and the energy level was far from consistent.
The team was young group in a cloudy place, searching for answers, and having trouble finding them.
Now, thanks to better health, for everyone other than Towns and Jake Layman, a strong spurt from a group of players that’s spent the majority of the season in Iowa with the G League Wolves, and a changed in identity, the Wolves have looked closer to the version of the team that got off to a 10-8 start. Minnesota has suddenly won five of its last eight games, even as Towns continues to sit with his knee aliment.
The change in identity was something that needed to happen. The Wolves spent the first half of the month of December as a historically bad defensive team, but since then they’ve been one of the NBA’s best on that end of the floor.
“It was definitely a moment when Wiggs and KAT was out, not saying they don’t play defense. But like when they were out, we knew that was a lot of scoring that we probably could make up for, so the only way to supplement was really just to kind of grind and make sure the other teams weren’t scoring and kind of feed off our defense and give us offense,” Josh Okogie said after the 116-102 win over Portland on Thursday night. “That’s what kind of kept us in the hunt while those two were out. Now, they’re coming back, Wiggs is playing great on defense, he’s definitely following suit, and I know 100% KAT will do the same. We kind of formed that identity and everybody is on board.”
It was a necessary change for a team headed in the wrong direction. It’s the way that teams can go from average to good, and from good to great. The Wolves might not be in any of those categories yet, but stretches like this can help to lay the foundation for when they’re ready to be.
“Man, it’s tremendous because we can’t outscore everyone,” Robert 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 athleticism to where can do a lot of things. How committed are we? We kind of got away from it, but now we’re starting to trend back towards the way we started the season. Guys see what we’re capable of and see what we weren’t doing. Now we’re back to doing the little things and that’s what’s getting us there. Guys don’t want to experience that [losing] right now.”
Even if it took longer than many would have liked it to, the identity of this team has become defense. That switch flipping can be hard to pin on a specific event, but it certainly does coincide with a couple of things.
The start of that can probably be pointed back to the fourth quarter of the game against the LA Clippers on Dec. 14. The Wolves faced a tough deficit but vigorously fought back to nearly steal a game from the Clippers and held them to just 22 points in the fourth quarter. It was a loss, but it was a night when the Wolves looked like something might have been figured out on that end of the floor.
In the 12 games since that night the Wolves have been the NBA’s best defense, by a somewhat significant margin. Their defensive rating is 101.4, superior to Orlando’s second-place mark of 103.2. That difference is nearly as wide as the gap between second-place Orlando and sixth-place Boston.
“Us going through that little stretch allowed this team to refocus and get back to where we were at [early on defensively],” Covington said. “We’ve been playing some really good basketball as of late. We’ve just been locking in and really doing everything that we need to. A couple plays were mishaps. The Memphis game was one of those where we let the lead get away. We still played a really good game. We played good games before that. We’ve just been doing a good job and putting ourselves in great position.”
Even though the Wolves have only gone 5-7 over the last 12 games, the losses have been because of insufficient offense at times. Now, the reasoning for the improved defense is something that’s interesting to think about.
The fourth quarter of that Clippers game featured strong defense from the Wolves, but it also featured the moment when Towns injured his left knee. He finished the game, but hasn’t played since.
The elephant in the room and the easiest thing to point to is that Towns has been out for the last 12 games with that left knee injury. That’s an easy thing to point to as to why the defense has been better, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the right answer to the question. Could it be? Sure. But it could be a combination of other things as well.
The other thing that happened immediately after the game was the Wolves had a built in four-day break. They played the Clippers Friday night and didn’t resume play until the following Wednesday. That’s an unusually long break in the middle of December for an NBA team, and it gave them a chance to get back to basics on the defensive end, as well as fortify the other things they wanted to do at that end.
“As a coach and as a coaching staff, you don’t just put things in on the fly during the season. Sometimes, you’ll have your packages and you’ll think about what can work with certain personnel, more defensively. And then you find times when you think you can put it in, when maybe we’re going to have three days of practice, we’ll work on this a little bit more,” coach Ryan Saunders said after Thursday’s win.
The injury to Towns has given Gorgui Dieng more playing time, and he’s a better defender than Towns for certain. And the impact that he’s on the floor has been undeniable.
“Tremendous. Blocked shots. Knock down shots. Do a lot. Him and KAT are very similar, but G just blocks more shots,” Covington said. “They’re both shotmakers, but G’s impact on the game has been tremendous for us. He’s stepping into the role that normally KAT will play, but G has responded very well. That’s what you know the “Next Man” mentality is. G is a living example of it. With the opportunity he’s been given he’s been playing tremendous, he’s been playing out of the world, so I’m just happy that he’s able to transition because he’s always said, “I only got a certain amount of minutes, then it’s c’mon KAT.” But he’s been very good and he’s been sustaining very well.”
With Towns’ impending return from his left knee injury, seeing what the defense looks like will be one of the more interesting subplots to this season. That could happen as soon as Saturday in Houston, or Monday at home against Oklahoma City. Talk to you then.