Timberwolves coach Chris Finch seemed resigned to the idea that his team simply could not and would not defend on a consistent basis after Minnesota lost in Detroit last Wednesday. It was another Timberwolves loss to an inferior opponent after they failed to supply any sort of defensive pressure.
“Ball pressure was nonexistent. We just didn’t get into the ball, we didn’t make them feel uncomfortable. Then ball-contain was poor, and closeouts were poor,” Finch told reporters after the game. “There was just zero impact on defense all over the place.”
What else was new? That issue had plagued this team time and time again throughout the first half of the season.
“It starts on the ball. We’ve just not been very good containing the ball,” Finch said, “and when we go through these stretches, we find it very difficult to guard people.”
Fast forward to Saturday at Target Center, and the issue was solved. Minnesota defended Cleveland, a healthy, top-tier Eastern Conference opponent, on a possession-by-possession basis en route to a 110-102 upset victory.
“I loved our defense,” Finch said. “We were really on point defensively.”
And that seemed to have everything to do with who was on the floor.
Austin Rivers, Taurean Prince, Kyle Anderson, Taurean Prince and Anthony Edwards — Minnesota’s top five perimeter defenders — all played 25-plus minutes against the Cavaliers. Finch said the plan was to not allow Cleveland’s premier guards — Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell — to beat them. And the Timberwolves proved again they has the personnel to execute such a plan.
Many times at least three of Minnesota’s legitimate perimeter defenders were on the court together, creating an imposing defensive lineup for any opponent to attempt to penetrate.
“We got five guys out there that was willing to guard. We was arguing over who was gonna guard Darius Garland and D-Mitch. Austin check into the game, cold off the bench (and says), ‘I got em,’ ” Edwards said. “Third quarter, Jaden got four fouls, I said, ‘I got em’. We got dogs out there, man. It was fun playing in the fourth quarter, seeing them lock up, because that’s what I would like to do, too.”
As leaky as the Timberwolves’ perimeter defense has seemed at times this season, it’s quite good when Finch goes to his best defensive options. It was just a year ago when Finch recognized that most of Minnesota’s players lean toward the offensive end. But on this year’s roster, that split is closer to 50-50. Within the rotation, there are plenty of defense-oriented options that give Finch the flexibility to turn toward defensive units.
Lineups that feature the following three-man combinations have all held opponents to 100 points or fewer per 100 possessions this season: McDaniels, Anderson and Prince (89.6); McDaniels, Edwards and Prince (94.9); Edwards, Rivers and Prince (96.9), and Edwards, Prince and Anderson (100).
Even a lineup that features Anderson, Edwards and McDaniels — with a much larger sample size of 386 minutes — has a defensive rating of 108.2. McDaniels, Anderson and Rudy Gobert have played 257 minutes together, and tout a defensive rating of 101.6. For reference, the best team defensive rating this season belongs to Memphis at 109.
Throughout the season, Finch said he has needed to find five guys who were going to guard. They’ve identified themselves. Now will the coach use them?