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Heat 109, Wolves 97: Where's The Defense?

Spoiler Alert: Nowhere to be found...and Jimmy Butler isn’t having any of it.

NBA: Miami Heat at Minnesota Timberwolves
Drive and kick (and beat the Wolves with threes).
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — After another pitiful defensive showing that saw the Miami Heat hit a season-high 19 threes on 39 attempts, the leader of the Wolves message was loud and clear. The unsightly performances are getting to be ridiculous.

“We haven’t guarded anybody all year long,” said Jimmy Butler for the second time in three nights. He made that same statement after the win over Orlando on Wednesday after the Magic scored 38 points in the fourth quarter before falling short of a potential devastating comeback.

Butler wasn’t pleased then and he isn’t happy now either. The team isn’t defending like many envisioned they would in year two under Tom Thibodeau, with his two trusted defensive interpreters from those successful Chicago days, Butler and Taj Gibson, in the fold.

“We have to eventually figure it out and want to play defense and stop trying to outscore the opponent,” said Butler. “It starts with me and goes all the way down the line. We gotta start guarding somebody. It’s getting ridiculous and it’s getting sad. I heard some boos in there and rightfully so. If we don’t want to go out and play hard and do what we’re supposed to do, they’re not going to come support us. We need to change it around quickly.”

Butler continued, “You gotta want to do it, you know what I mean? You can’t be lazy. You can’t give up on plays if you’re beat.”

This was the most threes the Wolves have allowed in a game all season. The Heat started the evening firing open right corner threes, leading to the quick 22-11 start before the Wolves cut the lead to one after the first. For some reason, Aaron Brooks got the start at point guard ahead of backup point guard, and more deserving to draw the start if necessary like it was tonight, Tyus Jones. Jones did start the second half at point guard and played a career-high 32 minutes, finishing with eight points, six rebounds and six assists. This was because Jeff Teague sat out due to right Achilles soreness, ending his consecutive games played streak at 167 games, which was the third-longest active streak in the NBA.

As if missing Teague wasn’t enough bad news, Nemanja Bjelica also hit the bench in a sport coat nursing a left mid-foot sprain—unfortunately the same foot he hurt and had surgery on last season. (Supposedly it’s been bothering him lately.) Yes, it was always going to be an uphill battle with Teague and Bjelica sitting out against a feisty and well-coached Miami squad, but as Thibodeau always says, they had more than enough to get by.

Nevertheless, the Heat kept running smooth sets that were leading to wide-open threes all night and it felt like they were in control the entire game, no matter how close the Wolves got. In truth, there was no obvious adjustment made throughout the night. The threes kept raining down on them until Miami walked away with the convincing 109-97 win.

Every time Minnesota trimmed the deficit to 8-10 points, boom, another triple. The shot contesting on the perimeter was laughably non-existent. Miami hit more corner threes than the Wolves hit from deep altogether (7-17). It was just basic drive and kick action, pick and pops, and/or swinging the ball from side to side a few times. The Heat made offense look simple as they dissected the Wolves in all regards; the defense was truly terrible tonight, and Butler’s straightforward postgame comments came as no surprise. Goran Dragic (20 points), Dion Waiters (17 points) and Wayne Ellington (21 points, including 6-9 from deep—our old friend Make it Wayne now has 15 treys over his last three games) were just running to their spots and they’d receive the ball after some simple action had the Wolves scrambling around trying to contest shots they had no chance of contesting.

The game in a nutshell was like this: The three is up in the air...and...swish. Miami hits another one. Lather, rinse, repeat. They were hot, sure, but also extremely uncontested.

"I would think time and time after going through the film, you watching yourself constantly getting your ass beat on the defensive end, you’d get sick and tired of it,” said Butler. “I don’t think it registers in our heads like that. It’s like, ‘oh well eventually their just going to miss a shot.’ Not in this league. In this league, you have to work to make them miss a shot. You gotta do all the right things.

We’re letting guys get to their strengths, not making them go to their weaknesses. We’re doing everything that we talk about we’re not going to do when we’re going through the scouting report. That’s just the preparation and the will to want to do it. The coaches put us in a great position when it comes to scouting and letting us know what their gonna be running and everybody’s strengths. When we get out there we gotta execute though."

Justice Winslow started the game guarding Karl-Anthony Towns as the Heat decided to cross-match and put Hassan Whiteside (16 and 10 in 24 minutes) on Gibson. One would have imagined numerous post touches for Towns on either block, allowing him to go to work on the much smaller Winslow but that happened maybe once in the first half and almost not at all throughout the game. Towns actually didn’t score in the first half, which aside from the game he got in early foul trouble down in New Orleans earlier this season, almost never happens. Without looking, it’s quite possible these are the only two games of his career that he has not scored a point in the first half of a game.

I still cannot understand how the coaching staff is not running plays and demanding he get the ball on the block. He’s one of the best low-post scorers in the NBA, with a deadly and unblockable right-handed hook. Yet...very few touches against the 6'7" Winslow, nor against Kelly Olynyk or James Johnson. That is difficult to comprehend, even if Towns is having trouble with defenders fronting him (and he certainly is). Part of the problem is he has been spoiled by having Ricky Rubio in his first two seasons; Ricky could make passes over the top in his sleep, while the new guys trying to feed Towns are not particularly comfortable making them; they hesitate and look elsewhere.

Towns also needs to work on repositioning himself instead of holding his hand up in the air waiting for post-entry passes that probably aren’t going to come over the top when these defenders are fronting him so hard. He needs some sort of counter move to get these guys behind him because it’s obvious he’s not going to get the ball 95% of the times he gets fronted. Teams are doing this to him more than ever before and the tactic is clearly making its way across the league. As Thibodeau noted, Towns can also help himself out by simply moving.

“Well, he’s gotta keep moving,” said Thibs. “That’s a big part of the problem. They’re looking for him and he’s standing stationary. You aren’t going to get the ball. You gotta keep moving. And you have to execute.”

Thibs can also help Towns out by drawing up some action that gets him in better spots where he can get positioning. The offense is heavily reliant on the pick-and-roll, which often devolves into isolation stuff, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of creativity in halfcourt sets. The Wolves often make themselves easier to guard than they should. (But that’s only one man’s eye test.) Towns’ final stat line (18 points, 11 rebounds) only looks respectable due to his 16 fourth quarter points. Don’t let the garbage time buckets, when the game was already clearly out of the realm of being winnable, fool you.

"He scored some at the end, but it was meaningless," said Thibs during his incredibly mum postgame presser.

Miami opened the night hitting 10 of their first 13 attempts from the floor, including 4-6 from long range. They set the tone early and never looked back in front of the third sellout crowd of the season, one that included my dad, who has actively avoided the Target Center for the past decade; he’s probably been there twice in ten years. I’m sure other people that haven’t been there in a long time, or perhaps ever before tonight, also made their way to the game to see what the new Wolves were all about. Turns out, they probably left asking “Where’s the defense?”

Jimmy Butler and plenty of us are wondering the same.