Sometimes it is appropriate to get carried away.
Very rarely, but sometimes, you feel like good fortune has set you upon a beast of extraordinary power and coordination, and you can feel both the muscles and their rippling flex taking you for a joyride, like a kid in a cowboy movie, and you become a living embodiment of that corny word. Giddy-up.
At the flip of the calendar from October to November, the Minnesota Timberwolves transformed from an aggravating enigma into a cantering thoroughbred, a dashing conduit for giddy emotion that leaves an imprint; that fosters a mood the inverse of doom.
At either end of its six-day trek thus far, the Wolves beat an opponent generally considered to be the best in the NBA at the time – a then-undefeated foe who had made at least the conference finals the year before. The Wolves have vanquished the Denver Nuggets on Nov. 1 and the Boston Celtics on Nov. 6 – two of the top three contenders to win the 2023-24 NBA Championship.
In between those banner victories, the Wolves thrashed the Utah Jazz by 28 points on Nov. 4, led by a hounding defense that was both large and scrappy, making it unclear whether the Jazz offense became comatose due to collision or suffocation.
Bold pronouncements six games into an 82-game season are a premature pathway to ridicule, and this moment is tailor-made for “giddy-up” overriding one’s common sense. No matter. Barring significant injuries or some other woeful disruption, I don’t mind predicting that the 2023-24 edition of the Wolves will feature the best defense in the 35-year history of the franchise.
They certainly have a head start on the process. Per basketball-reference.com the Wolves defensive rating – points allowed per 100 possessions – has only been better than the league average in eight of their previous 34 years of existence. Not surprisingly, their best mark was their lone season making it past the first round of the playoffs, in 2003-04, when the defense yielded 3.2 fewer points per 100 possessions than the NBA average. After that, the best season was 2005-06 – Dwane Casey’s first year as coach – when they were 1.7 points per 100 possessions better than average.
Through the first six games of this season, the Wolves are 11.9 points stingier than average. According to NBA.com, they are currently 2.5 points better than anyone else, yielding 100.7 points per 100 possessions compared to the second-best New York Knicks at 103.2 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Those are numbers. Let’s see what the opponents think. The Celtics came into Target Center Monday night scoring nearly five more points per 100 possessions than any other team – 124.7, compared to second-best Dallas at 119.9. After the Wolves had gutted out a glorious 114-109 overtime win, Boston’s highest-paid player, swingman Jaylen Brown, somberly paid tribute to the Wolves’ defense.
“They beat us up. They made it tough for us to get to our spots, get to where we wanted to execute. They were the first team that put that kind of pressure on us,” said Brown.
“Their defensive toughness outmatched our offensive toughness,” said Celtics Head Coach Joe Mazzulla – who then repeated those words later in his postgame presser. “Their activity and their ability not to get screened kind of slowed our offense down.”
Mazzulla didn’t think his team – who had won their first five games – played badly. On the contrary, he saw the game as an example of “our opponents are going to bring the best out of us,” and closed with a rave review full of genuine enthusiasm. “That was awesome. What a game. That was sick. That was great.”
An “awesome” defense was what Wolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly was envisioning when he forked over an absurd amount of legitimate rotation players and future first-round draft picks to acquire three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert from Utah in July 2022. When Gobert’s first season in Minnesota became the definition of “lackluster,” Connelly properly absorbed some abuse. This year – the second of four in Minnesota before Gobert’s contract expires – has to be dramatically better or major changes will be made. With maximum salaries going out to Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards along with seven-figure payments each year for Naz Reid and Jaden McDaniels, the Timberwolves payroll is set to spiral well past the luxury tax threshold, requiring many more wins and a deeper playoff run to justify it.
Fittingly, the impetus for what has thus far been an elite defense is being fueled by Gobert. In my season preview, I wrote that the first of four key questions facing the Wolves was whether he could shed a little of his justifiable pride in classic rim protection and ownership of the paint near the hoop in order to graft more active, “fly around” tendencies that suit many of his younger teammates. These first six games have been a revelation – a combination of more flexible schemes, a team-wide buy-in and a stunning uptick in Gobert’s defensive performance across the board. He is demonstrably quicker than a year ago, more alert, more trusting, more proactive, and more contagiously joyous.
Against Denver, the Wolves ability to put KAT on superstar Nikola Jokic and let Gobert linger around power forward Aaron Gordon but mostly just lurk to protect the rim was extremely effective in hindering the Nuggets offense. Versus Utah, who tends to put even classic big mean like Walker Kessler in the corner, Gobert’s close-outs were sublime, and included a pair of blocks, one in each corner near the three-point arc. Against the Celtics and their “stretch 5,” 7-foot, 3-inch Kristaps Porzingis, the Wolves deployed a variety of schemes that had Gobert blocking Porzingis on a pick-and-roll at the rim, on a dipsy-doodle fade-away jumper at the foul line, and then chasing him off the three-point arc above the break and following him all the way to the rim, where his awkward layup attempt never got above the rim as Porzingis fell, begging for a whistle.
I watched a boatload of clips prepping for Monday’s epic battle between the NBA’s top defense and top offense, and was struck by constant movement and agitation Gobert brought to his craft – he’s exponentially more engaged and motivated than his listless mien of a year ago. Pregame, I asked Finch if the team’s greater defensive mobility was a product of tweaks in the scheme or more decisive aggression.
“I think they go hand-in-hand,” he replied. “We came into this season trying to take out some of the indecision and gray areas about stuff (regarding defensive responsibilities). So yeah, I think it has been cleaner and easier for our guys to get back to more of a pursuit mentality.”
“Is that all positions, point guard through center, in that pursuit mentality?” I asked as a follow-up.
“Yes,” Finch replied. “There is still some lag-time in rotations in some of our bigs and in certain actions, but I feel like it is getting better and better.”
Indeed, the most pleasant surprise of this now-promising season to-date has been how seemingly quick – or schematically efficient – players have become who traditionally had been slow-footed and/or deficit in their resilience and reliance on the fundamentals of defense. Although Gobert has taken a leap forward this season – longtime teammate Mike Conley said Monday night that he is playing better than ever – he already has a high bar. Not so for KAT, Naz, and for Kyle (Slo Mo) Anderson when shifting down from power forward to small forward. Each member of this trio has performed with a diligence and discipline that, especially for Naz, rarely if ever occurred.
Last season the Wolves were consistently burned in transition, to the point where Finch stopped his players from going for offensive rebounds so they could provide a better semblance of resistance in transition. So, when Gobert rested, how would a plodding front line of KAT (center), Naz (power forward) and Anderson (small forward) handle not only transition, for the space-and-pace ball movement and sharpshooting of the modern game?
The sample size is still scant, of course, but after six games the trio of KAT, Naz and Slo Mo is the 12th most deployed three-player lineup used by the Wolves at 63 minutes together. As one might expect, the Wolves are scoring more efficiently with them on the court – 111.4 points per 100 possessions compared to 109.3 for the team overall. But the defense is the eye-opener: 95.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, compared to 100.7 points allowed by the team overall this season.
Be it the bigs or the backcourt members of the roster, Finch said before the Boston game on Monday, “our rotations and shot-contests have to be on-point, and have been for the most part.” This is especially pertinent because, as Finch continued, “One key for us this year is not relying on Rudy to do everything, to always be in the middle (at the rim). He’s got to get out and cover ground in rotation. He’s motivated to do that and is playing at a very high level.”
The thrilling victory over the Celtics on Monday will be emblazoned in the memory mostly because Ant seized the moment on offense and played a stellar all-around game at that end of the court. He had 38 points in 37 minutes on just 25 shots, and put the game away in overtime, first with a shrewd feed to Conley for a three-pointer, and then with a bevy of baskets.
But there were other aspects that rippled into the giddy-up vibe for those whose witnessed this budding star operate. In the first half, having already sunk six of his first eight shots, Ant dished the ball to the corner for Jaden McDaniels, who had been purposefully left alone the entire half by the Celtics and still clanked eight of his first nine attempts. When McDaniels sank the corner trey Ant had engineered, Ant walk toward him, clapping his hands and seeking eye contact.
With less than two minutes to play at the Wolves down by three, all eyes were on Ant as he dribbled out by the arc. Everybody followed him – the audience with eyes, the Celtics with feet – as he drove toward the hoop. Then he dished it to the corner to a wide-open McDaniels. Splash. Tie game. Four of the seven assists doled out by Ant went to his struggling teammate, who missed eight of his first nine and made seven of his second nine, finishing 8-for-18 from the field.
In the locker room after the game, Gobert, naturally wanted to talk about defense. He noted that one of the reasons he is roaming so effectively this season is the trust he has in his teammates. Last season, he and Ant were like oil-and-water at both ends of the court. On Monday, he called out the rugged beauty of Ant’s crunch-time defense on the Celtics’ top scorer, Jason Tatum.
In fact, Ant picked up his fifth foul with more than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter – one away from elimination. After the game, Mazzulla said the Celtics were targeting Ant with isolation plays in an attempt to get him to pick up that sixth and final foul that would eliminate him from the game. But through the rest of regulation and the five minutes of overtime, Ant held his ground on defense without backing down, or fouling out.
Is it time to be giddy? Yup.