Timberwolves still struggling to toggle between defensive looks
Their two primary schemes have worked when they’re used almost exclusively
Ja Morant got anywhere and everywhere he wanted Friday in Memphis, easily dissecting Minnesota’s drop pick-and-roll coverage to attack Rudy Gobert in the paint.
That led to more criticism for Minnesota’s defensive stopper, whose impact has been questioned by outsiders at times throughout the season. But the reality is a Gobert-led Minnesota has had success stuffing Morant this season, holding the star guard to shooting performances of 11-for-25 and 8-for-20 in November.
In general, Minnesota has given Morant issues over the past two seasons, and the guard was rarely in true control of the game during the playoff series between the two teams back in April.
That was when the Timberwolves employed a different defensive look — the high wall pick-and-roll defense in which the team forced the ball out of the hands of the primary handler and then scrambled to cover up open shooters and dunkers. If anything, last season and this campaign have proven that both looks have their problems, but that both also can largely be effective.
Per Cleaning the Glass, Gobert’s defensive rating this season is 109.7 points per 100 possessions — which ranks in the 91st percentile among all centers. The same site shows Minnesota’s defensive rating is 7.4 points worse when the three-time Defensive Player of the Year isn’t on the floor. That suggests the Wolves need Gobert in order to adequately defend.
But Minnesota has defended at a high level in spurts without Gobert this season, as well, with nearly the same consistency of excellence. The Wolves have defensive ratings of 106.5 points per 100 possessions in 33% of Gobert’s starts this season, and achieved the same feat in 36% of the games in which he hasn’t played, per Cleaning the Glass.
Naz Reid has started 10 games this season, and in those 10 starts the big man has a defensive rating of 105.1, per NBA.com. When Reid starts, Minnesota almost exclusively runs its high wall scheme. That number falls off a cliff to 115.2 when he’s coming off the bench and the Wolves are shifting between defensive looks.
Minnesota can run either scheme effectively; the issue lies in switching back and forth between the looks. Toggling pick-and-roll coverages has proven to be a distinct challenge for the Wolves, a big reason why it looks so bad when Gobert is on the bench in games he starts. The Timberwolves do not have the ability to successfully transition between schemes.
Head coach Chris Finch knew that would be one of the most difficult tasks for Minnesota dating back to the start of the season.
“Having looked at a lot of the Rudy stuff before he got here, just being able to do those things I think is key,” Finch said earlier this month. “Particularly, if you have plans of playing in the postseason.”
Because the NBA’s great offensive players require multiple defensive looks to keep them off balance. That was true against Morant on Friday.
“It wasn’t like a ton of blow-bys tonight; it was more coverage of pick-and-roll point of attack tonight,” Finch told reporters Friday. “I just thought we weren’t really into the ball really well. I thought we were too far off the ball at the point. Too far off the ball at the screen. You can’t do that with a player like Ja. You’ve got to take his runway away.”
It also was the case against Luka Doncic — the Timberwolves’ star opponent when they play Dallas on Monday — back in a December loss. Gobert played higher up in his pick-and-roll coverage that night to take away Doncic’s looks coming off the screen, and it worked for a large chunk of the evening. But Doncic adjusted and started to pick apart the defense by finding open shooters in the corners, who knocked down key looks in the fourth quarter to put the game away. Only once Minnesota started to switch pick-and-rolls late was it again able to contain the Mavericks’ offense.
“I can do anything. It’s just about what’s best for the team. On a player like Luka, I think it’s good to give him different looks... He’s pretty smart and he can adapt really well. so just try to give him a different look,” Gobert said that night. “I thought it was good when I was up early in the game, then they adjusted. We adjusted, too, just a little — a tad too late.”
Kyle Anderson noted in the preseason that Minnesota has the personnel to show multiple defensive looks throughout a game. That, he said, is what good teams do.
“The Golden States, Milwaukees, teams like that. They’re able to execute different coverages throughout the game,” Anderson said during training camp. “We want to be a team like that, able to show different looks. That’s going to be up to coach, but when he does call a different coverage, you want to be able to adjust to it and execute.”
They have yet to consistently demonstrate that ability, which is why Minnesota remains good, but not great on that end of the floor.
“I don’t think a lot of teams do it. … There’s only eight, nine, 10 good teams in the league. I think they’re the only teams capable of doing it,” Anderson said in training camp. “It’s tough, because you go out and practice one thing and you’re asking your players to do something different in the game. It’s tough for everybody to be on the same page, but I think we’re totally capable of it here.”
Four months later, it’s past time to show it.
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