Minnesota Timberwolves: The defense is finally coming together

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 30: Justise Winslow
MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 30: Justise Winslow /

After struggling on defense in the first few games of the season, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ defense is finally coming together.

After the first few games of the season, many Minnesota Timberwolves fans were starting to grow restless. Expecting a much improved defensive team with the additions of Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, the Wolves showed anything but that in their first few games of the season.

As matter of fact, the Wolves were giving up an average of 113.8 points per game in their first five games. Although, it’s fair to note their worst defensive performances came without shutdown defender Jimmy Butler, who missed two games due to sickness. Unquestionably, the team looks far worse defensively without the star winger, giving up 252 total points in losses to the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers.

Even so, it’s not like the Timberwolves showed much defensive promise with Butler in the lineup. Much of this had to do with the continued defensive struggles of young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, as well as a lack of defensive playmakers off the bench. I mean, the likes of Jamal Crawford, Shabazz Muhammad and Tyus Jones don’t necessarily scream defense.

For specifics on the Wolves’ defensive struggles, here’s a look at the defensive pitfalls that occurred through the first five games of the year. These brought to you by the Pioneer Press’ Jace Frederick:

"Many culprits: Among players who have played at least four games and are averaging at least 10 minutes a game, Shabazz Muhammad has the worst defensive efficiency. The Wolves are allowing 123.8 points per 100 possessions when Muhammad is on the floor. Towns is fifth worst in the league (119.5), and Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson are also in the bottom 11.Fast-break points allowed: Minnesota has given up an average of 17 fast-break points a game, better than only Washington and Phoenix. The Timberwolves were outscored 24-0 in fast-break points in their loss to Detroit on Wednesday. Often times, transition defense comes down to simply making the effort to get back on defense, and the Wolves aren’t giving it.Defensive field goal percentage: Opponents have shot 52 percent against Minnesota — good for worst in the NBA and three percentage points worse than the next worst defense, Indiana. And it doesn’t get much better from 3-point range, where opponents are shooting 41 percent against Minnesota, third worst in the NBA.Rebounding percentage: The Timberwolves get 47.8 percent of rebounds up for grabs each game, 25th in the NBA. Too often, they have to make multiple defensive stops per trip down the floor."

Since then, Minnesota has improved astronomically. After a 2-3 start, the Timberwolves returned Butler to the lineup following a two-game absence. While they allowed 116 and 122 points in wins against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat respectively, the Wolves have allowed less than 100 in the last three. All wins, resulting in a five-game win streak.

In particular, holding the New Orleans Pelicans and Charlotte Hornets to under 100 shouldn’t be taken lightly. The Pelicans boast big men stars Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, while the Hornets have Kemba Walker and a deep supporting cast. Against the Hornets, the Wolves allowed a season-low 94 points to a team that normally scores around 105 points a game. Altogether, Minnesota’s most complete game of the year.

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Of course, there was some frustration in the first few games concerning the defensive effort. But, it’s also fair to say the Wolves just need time to gel. Let’s not forget that a majority of this team is young and played poorly on defense last season. While it’d be ideal for Butler to wave a magic wand over his teammates to start playing better defense, it unfortunately doesn’t work like that.

Instead, it’s a process. Yet, fans should feel good about having leaders like Tom Thibodeau, Butler and Gibson helping the team along in the transition to becoming a more defensive oriented squad. Even better yet, fans should be delighted to see defensive improvement so quickly in the season after some dreadful performances early.

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That being said, the ultimate defensive test is coming Wednesday when Minnesota takes on the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Not to mention, the test comes on the road at Oracle Arena, arguably the biggest home court advantage in the league. So, we are about to find out how well the defense is really clicking.

Don’t expect the Wolves to hold the defending champions to under 100, as they average 120.7 points per game so far. But, holding the NBA’s top offense to anywhere under 110 points should be considered an accomplishment and a positive sign of Minnesota’s defensive growth.

Regardless, the fantastic defensive performances over the last week show the Timberwolves are capable of being a sound team defensive team. While growing pains and off days should be expected, this team has the pieces in place to play efficient defense.

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If they continue building on the strong play as of late, developing consistency on the defensive end, this team is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous teams in the league as they’ve been during their five-game win streak. By the end of the year, they could very well be one of the most complete teams in the NBA.