Timberwolves take small steps to improve poor defense

Chris Hine, Star Tribune
·3 min read

Chris Finch knew he wasn't going to have time to completely overhaul the Timberwolves defense when he took over as head coach a few games before the All-Star break.

So for the second half of the season, the main philosophy he wanted to preach was this: Less thinking, more running.

As in, don't worry so much about the minutiae of coverages. If somebody has the ball and is open near you, guard that person, no matter who it is. If that player passes the ball, your teammates will do the same.

It requires a lot of effort and energy, since possessions with a lot of ball movement might quickly gas the players. But during the Wolves' recent four-game win streak, it worked. Over those four games, an admittedly small sample size, the Wolves tied for the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA over that stretch (104.7 points per 100 possessions allowed).

Those four games are a blip in the Wolves' overall defensive performance — they still finished April with the fifth-worst defensive rating, but their numbers did improve as the calendar got closer to May. At least for this stretch, the Wolves showed what they might be capable of on that end of the floor.

The questions going forward with this style of defense are: Is this style, where players expend a lot of energy per defensive possession, sustainable over the course of a long season? Will it resemble how Finch wants the Wolves to permanently play defense?

The answer to both is yes.

As it relates to players' conditioning, Finch said how the Wolves are defending is similar to the rest of the league.

"It's absolutely sustainable because the best teams do it," Finch said. "They play both ends of the floor and a lot of that is just we're creating a foundation of expectation, work rate. You have to have the fitness to go alongside of it."

Finch said that has been difficult for a lot of teams to reach this season, because the contorted, COVID-influenced offseason affected how a lot of players got into game shape and sustained that level.

Rookie Jaden McDaniels said he doesn't really notice how much running he's doing defensively. "It doesn't make me tired or anything like that," McDaniels said. "I be cool. I don't be fatigued or nothing while I'm playing defense."

On Monday, Finch said how the Wolves play defense now is about "60 percent, maybe two-thirds" of the way he wants the team to play once he has an offseason to instill some of his other concepts.

"There are things we'd like to do that are maybe a little more creative that we want to add," Finch said. "Different looks out of zone, so maybe different trapping ideas, stuff that you really have to have a foundation in to build off. I do like the way that we are again kind of freeing ourselves and scrambling a little bit more."

Part of the reason the Wolves are playing this way is because they have a roster full of youth and athleticism. The personnel can pull off the scheme, of lack thereof in this case.

"It's not overthinking what's going on out there," Finch said. "It's, 'Hey, if the ball is open and it's in front of you, go find a way to guard it and we'll keep working to fix it on the back end.' "

That often means players flying out to the three-point line just to contest a shot. Finch has wanted to emphasize protecting the paint over protecting the three-point line. Because of that, whoever can get out there first when the ball is there should go, and don't worry about the consequences.