The Minnesota Timberwolves are on a roll. They’ve won four straight games and have held six of their last seven opponents to 100 points. The last time the Timberwolves strung together as many wins was in April. The last time opponents were held below 100 points, well, that only happened five times last season.
The catalyst that has the Timberwolves just one win away from .500? Defense. The Timberwolves currently have the 7th-best defensive rating in the NBA with a rating of 104.4. It’s a far cry (or howl) from last season where they had the third-worst defense in the league. In fact, in the two full seasons that the defensive-minded Tom Thibodeau was in charge, the Timberwolves could only finish 27th for defense.
So how did the Timberwolves transform into one of the best defensive teams in the league? If you speak to Anthony Edwards, you’ll discover it didn’t happen overnight. The sophomore guard was quoted in October saying “We lock up, man. I don’t care what nobody say about us. We play the best defense in the league. I stamp that.” It was a big call back then for Timberwolves who were 4-9 at the time but he wasn’t exactly wrong.
Head coach Chris Finch has instilled a new free-flowing, disruptive defensive philosophy in Minnesota. Imagine the high-octane, free-scoring 73-9 Golden State Warriors, but instead of offense, the Timberwolves are playing that way on D.
A hallmark of this defense is their new pick-and-roll scheme. Karl-Anthony Towns is now allowed to defend up high at the level of the screen instead of zagging down to protect the paint. The first two plays in the clip below shows how impactful Towns can be when he isn’t sitting back around the rim.
Their “high-wall” pick-and-roll defense (as Towns likes to call it) generates a swarming, disruptive defensive scheme that the Wolves are fully bought into. Players are now more alert about their rotations, making multiple switches to get a stop. When executed properly, the end result is fantastic. Opponents are forced into turning over the ball, taking ill-advised shots or violating the shot clock, as seen in the following clip.
A quick look at the stats will tell you their style is working. Minnesota forces opponents into a league-best 18.1 turnovers per game. The Timberwolves rank in the top five for steals and blocks. They’re also first in the league for loose balls recovered, second in deflections and third for charges drawn. With the fundamentals and intangibles covered, you can see why Edwards believes they play the best defense in the league.
NBA’s best three-point defense
Minnesota’s swarming style has also made them the best three-point defenders in the league. Opponents are only making 30.6% of threes, below the league average of 34.3%. The nature of Minnesota’s defense means teams have more space to let it fly from deep, but often with defenders scrambling to contest the shot.
Contrast this to last season, when Minnesota was the worst three-point defending team in the league. Opponents seemingly had the green light to score from downtown, shooting 39.8% from beyond the arc. This season, three-pointers still account for 38% of opposing team shots, but the fact that opponents are struggling to find the net from deep indicates that the defenders are putting more pressure on the ball.
The emergence of Jarred Vanderbilt
The defensive impact of fourth-year forward Jarred Vanderbilt is undeniable. In Monday’s win over the Pelicans, he held Brandon Ingram to nine points on 2-13 shooting. It was the first time Ingram was held under 10 points while playing 35 or more minutes.
Edwards was full of praise for Vanderbilt after the win saying, “He’s first team all-defense if you ask me. Hardest worker in the NBA. Never stops. The best teammate to have.” Towns agrees, saying: “It helps to have Vando. He makes defense a lot easier.”
It’s not hard to see why Vanderbilt’s teammates love him. In the clip below he is effectively left to pick up two players on the perimeter before scrambling towards the rim to help out and reject Drew Eubanks’ shot attempt.
Vanderbilt is fast becoming a nightmare of a defender for opponents. He relentlessly hounds them on both ends of the court. His suffocating defense leads to fast-break opportunities and he is constantly battling for rebounds. Watch below as he picks up Desmond Bane on the drive, forcing the Grizzlies guard to pass it out. He then blocks Bane’s shot and contests the follow-up, forcing an air-ball.
Although his offensive game may leave many wanting for more, Vanderbilt’s presence is seen in nearly every other statistical category. Despite averaging only 20.6 minutes of court time, Vanderbilt consistently ranks in the top three on the Timberwolves for rebounds, blocks and steals. His energy and hustle are vital ingredients for Chris Finch’s defensive system and are a big reason for Minnesota’s success.
The Patrick Beverley effect
Patrick Beverley had many detractors poking fun at him in the summer. The veteran guard was traded twice, first to Memphis and then the Minnesota. Many were quick to say he was past his prime and over the hill. Despite being six years older than the next-oldest player on the roster, Beverley has flourished in his role as a defensive mentor.
Just like his days in Los Angeles, Beverley has set the defensive standard in Minnesota with his intensity and physicality. The three-time All Defensive Team member continues to be a menace on defense. Watch below as he locks up former teammate Reggie Jackson with ease, pushing him back to the perimeter and forcing the turnover.
Despite his age, Beverley is not showing any signs of slowing down. As seen below, he remains as defensively aware as ever, stopping fast breaks and picking pockets. In fact, Beverley is averaging a career-high 1.1 blocks per game to go with his 0.9 steals per game. Given the way the Timberwolves are defending this season, Minnesota definitely got the last laugh in their trade for Beverley.
What it all means for Minnesota
It’s still early days but it looks like Minnesota’s disruptive defense is here to stay. Whether they can sustain their defensive intensity as the season progresses is another matter but they have the tools, talent and teamwork to make it happen.
Minnesota have some tough fixtures in the weeks ahead but their narrow 99-96 loss to the red-hot Phoenix Suns shows they mean business. With the Wolves’ defense clicking and their offensive game gradually improving, Minnesota fans should be treated to some playoff basketball at the end of the season.