It seems odd that a Tom Thibodeau-coached team could struggle defensively, but those struggles have been a theme for Minnesota throughout the season. Thibodeau said the defensive challenges have combined with a less-than-ideal schedule and injuries to make the first quarter of the season a struggle.
“The hard thing has been this: It’s important for us just to find ways to win,” said Thibodeau after Sunday’s win over the visiting Clippers. “Our schedule hasn’t been ideal as far as practicing. You’re trying to make corrections in ballrooms and walk-throughs. In the meantime, you do the best you can, you watch film and you want to learn. We’re down players, so that’s part of it, too.”
Starting point guard Jeff Teague and third-year forward Nemanja Bjelica—owner of a supremely-efficient 18.2 PER that trails only Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler on the team—have both missed time due to injury. The team appeared to dodge a bullet when Towns was able to return to action quickly after being evaluated for a concussion following a collision with OKC’s Andre Roberson that required stitches above his right eye. However, Towns had only seven points on six shots in 37 minutes of action in an embarrassing defeat at Memphis on Monday. The Grizzlies had lost 11 in a row before Minnesota’s visit but were able to snap the streak against a Timberwolves team that is below .500 on the road.
“Like I’ve said time and time again, we’ve got to start guarding somebody,” said Butler after the Clippers game. “It’s really bad, really noticeable, and everybody capitalizes on it.”
After struggling early against a brutal opening schedule, as Basketball Insiders’ Jesse Blancarte described, the Timberwolves have actually improved to 24th in defensive efficiency. The team presently matches the Cleveland Cavaliers in allowing 108 points per 100 possessions. Minnesota is outscoring opponents by nearly half a point per game, a differential that ranks 11th and places them squarely in the playoff conversation.
At sixth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, the team has made strides toward breaking a string of 13 consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance. Butler echoed Thibodeau’s comments about finding ways to win but also fell back on the familiar theme of emphasizing effort on defense.
“We’ve got to just continue to win,” said Butler. “We’re not worried the past and what happened X amount of years ago or last year. We can only control the right now.
“We’ve got some phenomenal scorers, guys that can put that ball in that basket better than a lot of guys in this league. But you’ve got to want to guard. You’ve got to have that second effort.”
Part of the problem for Minnesota is that the perimeter players haven’t been able to provide much support to Towns in limiting opponents near the basket. Andrew Wiggins came into the league with a reputation as a lockdown defender, but he’s allowed opponents to shoot nearly 50 percent this season. Outside 15 feet, opposing players are shooting a mere 36.5 percent against Wiggins, but once they get within 10 feet of the basket, that number shoots up to 67.4 percent on 135 shots guarded.
That theme continues with the starting backcourt of Teague (49 percent overall field goals against, 68.4 percent within 10 feet) and Butler (45.7 percent overall, 67 percent within 10 feet). As such, Butler was quick to add that he’s not singling out teammates for criticism, and includes himself among Timberwolves that need to improve.
“We talk about it every single day amongst ourselves,” said Butler. “I even don’t do what I’m supposed to do sometimes, letting the ball get [to the] middle. So, you know what? It starts with me. I’ve got to fix it on my end as well.”
With a challenging schedule, few opportunities to practice, injury woes and defensive shortcomings, the Timberwolves have faced a stacked deck in the early going. Nonetheless, the team has found a way to gut out a 14-11 record that has it on pace to break the playoff drought. If the team can continue to improve defensively, as seems likely for a team coached by Thibodeau, Minnesota should remain in the hunt for a playoff spot.
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