The Minnesota Timberwolves played what is probably their best team defensive performance of the season in a 109-101 win over the Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday night. It was the most active and energetic we’ve seen the Wolves this season, which is impressive considering how many rotation players were out.
The Grizzlies shot 42.5% from the field and committed 27 turnovers, most in a game by a team this season per StatMuse. Memphis may have been without star wing Desmond Bane, but it boasts enough offensive talent that this was still an impressive showing from the Wolves. This is the kind of effort that can set an example – and expectation – for the rest of the season.
Two players played the biggest role in tightening the screws on Memphis. One was Anthony Edwards, who put up five steals and three blocks in what was perhaps the finest defensive performance of his young career.
Edwards did a great job of showing his hands in dribbling and passing lanes whenever possible. He’s got long arms and quick-twitch reflexes, which he used to gum up the works of Memphis’ offense.
Edwards showed maturity by letting his defense propel his offense while he drifted through the middle two quarters. He probably wouldn’t have gone off for 17 points in the fourth quarter to put the game away if he didn’t stay in the flow through his defensive activity.
The other player who deserves a shoutout is Naz Reid. With Karl-Anthony Towns out and Rudy Gobert in foul trouble, Reid stepped up with some incredibly energetic minutes at the five. He accounted for five blocks while going up against one of the better front-courts in the league.
Reid doesn’t get as much credit as he should for his shot-blocking. He’s quick to get back off his feet for multiple contests, and he makes highlight plays that energize the team and home fans.
As a team, the Wolves did a great job on Ja Morant. The star guard finished with 24 points and six assists but shot just 8-of-20 and turned the ball over seven times.
Minnesota did well to close down Morant’s driving lanes and show him multiple bodies before he got a runway to lift off. The Wolves kept him out of the paint, where he’s among the best scorers in the entire league, and forced him to shoot jumpers.
Kudos to rookie Wendell Moore Jr., who got the Morant assignment from the jump in his very first start in the NBA. Moore knew he couldn’t match Morant’s burst, so he gave Morant a cushion and used his technique and length to cut off angles and contest shots.
The Wolves sent Morant to the line too many times, but he helped them out by shooting just 6-of-11 from the stripe. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Minnesota’s overall energy level was a breath of fresh air. After slogging their way through much of their first 21 games, the Wolves came to life. They got up in the Grizzlies’ jerseys and brought the active hands that were so crucial to their success last season. It led to 13 steals and 11 blocks for the team.
That activity created opportunities. Minnesota scored 19 fast break points; for reference, the Toronto Raptors lead the league in the category at 18.8 per game according to NBA.com. That came from the turnovers and missed shots caused by the team’s effort.
The Wolves could have done a better job capitalizing on turnovers – they scored 20 points on the 27 Grizzlies giveaways, and you’d like the ratio to be above one. Still, 20 points is a really good total for a game and presents a massive swing when you consider the Grizzlies weren’t scoring the previous possession.
The most impressive part of all of this is that Minnesota pulled it off without getting much from Rudy Gobert (one block, one steal, one rebound). If the rest of the roster can look like this more consistently, that will be a scary sight for teams alongside the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
The night was not without its warts, though. Most notably (and unsurprisingly), the Wolves got absolutely smashed on the defensive glass. The Grizzlies snagged 20 offensive rebounds, a huge part of a staggering 59-29 overall advantage on the boards. It helped make the discrepancy in shot attempts minimal despite all the Memphis turnovers.
In fairness, the defensive activity is part of the reason for Minnesota’s struggles to clean the glass. Flying around on defense and contesting every pass and shot will put players out of position for box-outs and rebounds. It’s all about striking the right balance, but the Wolves will certainly take this for tonight.
People will point to this defensive performance in Towns’ first game out and say it is not a coincidence, and Towns has gotten exposed by quicker forwards out on the perimeter. But KAT has not been the perpetrator of the disinterested nature on defense, and that was the biggest factor that changed Wednesday.
What the Wolves need to focus on is establishing a culture where everyone is accountable to play their tails off on defense every possession, every night, like they did against Memphis. If they can do that, they’ll be a formidable team when fully healthy.