The Minnesota Timberwolves were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA last season, ranking 23rd in opponent’s points per game (106.0) and 28th in opponents field goal percentage (47.1).
In Wednesday night’s preseason victory over the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota allowed just 88 points and held the Nuggets to 41 percent from the field.
Tom Thibodeau has clearly been working to improve the Wolves on the defensive side of the ball. Tonight, Minnesota’s defense caused real problems for the Nuggets. When it was all said and done, Ricky Rubio had led a strong team effort that forced 25 turnovers from the Nuggets.
Rubio’s effort was the most noticeable for those who were within 75 miles of the Target Center or in Lincoln and able to watch the game. He was everywhere. He anticipated passing lanes, he cleanly picked pockets and he harassed Jameer Nelson and Jamal Murray as soon as either one of them crossed the half-court line with the ball.
The Spaniard’s performance netted him four steals, which somehow feels like a low number. In realty, Rubio was the catalyst of plenty more Denver turnovers. It’s not a huge surprise that Rubio led the game in +/- at +25 in just 25 minutes.
First-round rookie Kris Dunn is following in Rubio’s footsteps on the defensive end. He’s still far from great — no rookie is great (besides KAT) — but Dunn was tenacious and aggressive all night on defense (his offense is another story). He wound up with three steals himself and was also a cause of few more turnovers.
On the interior, the addition of Cole Aldrich will give this team the rim protector it hasn’t had in ages. Meanwhile, Gorgui “Mr. Travel” Dieng continues to progress as a shot blocker and an intimidating defensive presence in the paint.
Yeah, it’s just a preseason game. This kind of performance only means so much. But it has been a very long time since Wolves fans have had reason to be excited about the team’s defense. That could be changing.
And looking back at the end of last season, the defensive side of the ball is really what kept the Wolves from winning more games. Offensively, the Wolves ranked among the best in the NBA once they found the current starting lineup. Despite the brilliant play of Rubio and unreal athleticism of players like LaVine, Wiggins and Towns, this unit under Sam Mitchell was poor defensively.
Three Wolves — Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad — tallied 18 points to lead Minnesota’s scoring. Towns added eight rebounds, which led the team, while Gorgui Dieng chipped in 10 points and seven rebounds.
Zach LaVine and Nemanja Bjelica continued to light it up from deep, combining to make five of 10 attempts from beyond the arc en route to 12- and 11-point performances, respectively.
The Wolves outscored the Nuggets 29-16 in the third quarter to open up a 17-point lead to enter the fourth, which wound up being the final margin. Denver was led by Wilson Chandler’s 16 points and Jamal Murray’s 14. Nikola Jokic added 11 points and six rebounds before fouling out after 14 (!) minutes of play.
After a rough start, the Wolves offense found a rhythm late in the first quarter and never looked back. Another efficient outing from three-point range (9-for-19) suggests Thibodeau wasn’t kidding about improving this team’s perimeter shooting. Through three games, there has been a clear focus on getting quality three-point looks that we rarely saw last season.
As Thibodeau and the Wolves try to break the franchise’s 12-year playoff drought, it has become clear that improving on the defensive end is priority number one. A strong argument can be made that a healthy improvement from Minnesota on that end of the floor will lead to a playoff berth.
While it’s merely preseason, it appears that Thibodeau’s impact on this team’s defensive performance is already showing, and it might not be long before such performances become the norm.