The Minnesota Timberwolves finally returned to playing meaningful basketball games, and what a glorious return it was. For the third straight season, the Timberwolves are off to a 2-0 start, but this season it feels different. Not in the “they’re going to the finals” different, but more like “holy shit, do we actually have a competent team?” different.
After a thorough shellacking of the Houston Rockets, the Timberwolves had an ugly but satisfying win against the New Orleans Pelicans. The Timberwolves should have won both games, but the Timberwolves have let these slip away in the past. They were far from perfect but winning both games and not crumbling under pressure is highly encouraging. The two wins are the main takeaway from the opening week, but here are some of my most intriguing observations from the week.
New Look Defense
Do the Timberwolves actually have a good defense? It sure as hell looks that way. The Timberwolves haven’t faced a high-powered offense yet, but the defensive changes look, and feel, legitimate. The Timberwolves’ current defensive rating of 91.5 is the best in the league. That number isn’t sustainable, but I don’t think it is a significant deviation from reality.
Chris Finch drew adulation in the offseason when he said the Timberwolves were not going to exclusively run drop coverage in the pick-and-roll. Praise rained down from the heavens, Hall of Fame induction speeches were being drafted, babies were being named Chris (call it a coincidence, you doubters). This was all before we had even seen a second of it in a real game. It didn’t matter, though, because anything could have been more productive than the drop defense that had constantly been run despite not a single stretch of success.
But what actually changed?
For starters, when the opposition runs the pick-and-roll, the Timberwolves center (Karl-Anthony Towns or Naz Reid in most cases) no longer drops to the rim and invites the ball-handler to the mid-range. Instead, the center now stays at the level of the screen and disrupts the ball-handler from attacking the interior. This change is more disruptive at the point-of-attack, but it also leaves the lane vulnerable as the Timberwolves aren’t switching; they are just showing to the ball. This area of the defense gets all the attention because it is where the ball is. However, the essential part about this defensive change is the awareness, effort, and rotations of the weak side defenders, mainly the low man. For this defense to work, those weak side defenders must shade towards the lane to take away the roll-man and be willing to scramble back to their man if the skip pass is made.
So far, the Timberwolves have executed this defense to perfection. Taurean Prince, Jarred Vanderbilt, Josh Okogie, Anthony Edwards, Malik Beasley, and even D’Angelo Russell have made a concerted effort and meaningful impact in this area of the defense. If this spark turns into a trend that turns into a theme that turns into an identity, the Timberwolves defense could be, dare I say, good this season.
The big staying high gets the attention in the Timberwolves' new DEF but the low-man and weakside help are the important parts. Continue to be really impressed with how impactful and consistent those weakside defenders have been at shading, recovering, and scrambling. pic.twitter.com/QnQzLR6gWn— Tyler Metcalf (@tmetcalf11) October 24, 2021
Watching this Timberwolves team is exhausting. Not in the historical sense of them ripping your heart out after elevating your blood pressure to a near heart attack state from their constant blunders, but in the sense that they never stop working. The energy that the entire team is playing with on both ends of the floor is infectious. They are constantly looking to push the ball in transition. On missed shots, multiple players are crashing the boards and picking up full court. Numerous efforts are being made on defensive rebounds and protecting the rim. It has become so absurd that the Timberwolves are actually avoiding screens instead of dying on each one of them.
While the team as a whole is playing with an energy we haven’t seen in ages, Josh Okogie and Jarred Vanderbilt deserve a special shout-out. What those two have done defensively so far this season has been a masterpiece. It has gotten to a point where they not only deserve to be in the rotation but to a point where one of them may need to be on the floor at all times. They are playing agitating point-of-attack defense (Kevin Porter Jr is still having nightmares about Okogie), avoiding screens, jumping passing lanes, and protecting the rim. It has been a joy to watch them play with an energy that may be able to power Minneapolis.
Playing with energy has never been an issue with those two because it is a significant reason they have made it this far in the NBA. However, it has often felt like unorganized chaos. This year, it feels like both players have finally harnessed and redirected that energy to constantly impact the defense within the scheme. If the Timberwolves continue to be a quality defensive team, Okogie and Vanderbilt will be the cornerstones.
Josh Okogie's defense was really special last night. Finally feels like his frenetic energy has been harnessed. Great instincts, perfect footwork, unmatchable energy, and looked more explosive challenging shots. This level of consistency is really important for him going forward. pic.twitter.com/1YibIMKt1q— Tyler Metcalf (@tmetcalf11) October 21, 2021
Glass Half-Full or Glass Half-Empty?
We knew it would be bad, and boy, oh boy, has it been bad. Well, bad may be harsh, but inconsistent? Unreliable? A work in progress? Let’s use that one. At least against the Rockets, the Timberwolves dominated the glass. It was purely through effort (which a lot of rebounding is), but the Rockets aren’t that physically imposing of a team.
The concerns derive from what we saw against the Pelicans. Jonas Valanciunas is one of the most physically imposing players in the league, but getting outrebounded 61 to 47 is unacceptable. It must be a team effort on a nightly basis because the Timberwolves don’t have the size to be a great rebounding team. There will be multiple games this season that the Timberwolves lose because they couldn’t rebound. If Zion Williamson was healthy, Saturday very easily could’ve been one of them. The effort and commitment to rebounding must be better going forward.
I’m going to shoehorn in another observation that loosely relates to the physicality of rebounding, which is the consistency that Karl-Anthony Towns gets goaded into playing a physicality game against opposing big men. Towns isn’t one of the biggest centers in the league, yet when he starts getting pushed around, he immediately pushes back. I love the fight and competitiveness, but it’s the inverse of the saying “work smarter, not harder.” Towns is a premier scoring threat in all three levels of the floor, yet he insists on taking these blundering big men to the post. Sometimes he executes a beautiful spin move, but he also racks up a ton of offensive fouls because he can’t move them with his body, so he resorts to the elbows. When Towns dragged Valanciunas to the perimeter, it was game over. Valanciunas had no chance to do anything productive in those situations. Karl, I implore you, please stop making life easy for these guys. Get them in space and embarrass them.
Really wish KAT wouldn't get goaded into the overly physical stuff that gets him in foul trouble by players like Valanciunas because they have no chance at defending him, especially when KAT is able to take them off the dribble. pic.twitter.com/pzuC7yXt3E— Tyler Metcalf (@tmetcalf11) October 24, 2021
D’Angelo’s Icy Start
It has not been a glorious start for Russell, who has essentially said as much. Despite a slow start against Houston, Russell came out after half-time with some huge threes and ended with a solid game. Against the Pelicans, though, Russell was genuinely awful. Shooting 5-14 with seven turnovers is tough to beat. If this is the Russell we continue to get, the Timberwolves will struggle to win anything. He has to turn things around.
Despite his genuinely awful start, I’m oddly encouraged by what I’ve seen from him. Russell has always liked to play at a slow pace and methodically pick his spots in the half-court offense. This season, Russell is actively pushing in transition, leaking out, and making hit ahead passes. He is fully bought in on what Finch views as the offensive identity of this team.
Additionally, a lot of Russell’s turnovers have come from over-passing. He is going out of his way to get guys involved. This is frustrating at times, but I’ll take ball-movement over isolation pull-ups any day. Finally, Russell looks as displeased with his play as fans do. In the past, when Russell has struggled, he has looked indifferent. As if it was just another day at the office. Oh well, until next time. Through two games, Russell looks frustrated, which means he cares, which means he’ll turn things around. Accuse me of grasping at straws in support of a much-maligned player, but I would be stunned if Russell doesn’t start to turn things around rather quickly.