Full disclosure: this title was intentionally misleading. This isn’t a gamer defending the Minnesota Timberwolves after another close loss — this time to the Washington Wizards. Instead, I want to talk about what is actually IN the defense of the Wolves. The problem that has been prevalent all season long reared its ugly head in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter of this game. The Wolves’ defense continues to be a mess.
While I still believe the prevailing issue is youth grasping accountability and communication, it doesn’t satisfy “disgruntled” fans to pass it off as youth in the same way it doesn’t satisfy “patient” fans to rant angrily about what the team is doing incorrectly (or what is believed to be incorrect). I use the disgruntled and patient qualifiers there merely as lazy labels. For the most part, this was a grueling game for Minnesota.
They battled through Andrew Wiggins in the first quarter to mostly keep pace with the Wizards’ all-around attack (eight different Washington players scored in the first 12 minutes). The Wolves were lucky to be within single digits going into halftime. Somehow, the bench was actually able to buoy the team with Zach LaVine’s accuracy apparently removed by the Secret Service at the White House. Then they came storming out in the third quarter and got themselves back in the game. It was the opposite of how many games have gone this season. Suddenly, they found themselves in a boxing match with five minutes to go and the game tied at 95.
That’s where the defense became an absolute feces festival. So what is in the defense of the Wolves? During this season, they’ve found themselves in 19 games that qualify “clutch” stats. In those games, they’re 5-14 with the 20th worst defensive rating in the clutch NBA. That’s after Friday’s Wizards game in which the defense in the final five minutes of the game was absolutely putrid.
In the final five minutes of the game, there were 10 official possessions for the Wizards. They scored 17 points on those 10 possessions. That’s a defensive rating of 170.0, which is apocalypitically bad. The Wizards went 7-of-8 from the floor, 2-of-2 from the free throw line, and turned the ball over once. So let’s look at those 10 possessions and see where the defense failed, shall we?
First possession: Pick-and-roll for Marcin Gortat dunk
John Wall and Marcin Gortat are going to run a pick-and-roll around the right elbow with a shooter in the strong side corner, and two shooters on the weak side. Rubio, who is a fantastic defender but has always struggled a bit getting off of screens, is trying to anticipate Wall bring the ball back toward the middle after he goes off of Gortat’s pick. So Rubio orbits the pick, almost fronting it like you would the post.
This leaves Gorgui Dieng to not only snuff out the drive to the hoop but be able to recover to the roller after Rubio recovers to Wall. The issue with this execution is Rubio never gets on Wall’s hip, which is really what you should do. He gets cute with getting around the screen and that leaves Gorgui to make a decision on where to cover. He makes the wrong decision.
Rubio does recover to the ball but because he freestyles the route to Wall, Dieng is left needing to figure out where he needs to cover. He opts to go to Wall, possibly thinking Rubio’s route has him chasing Gortat as the roller. They end up swarming Wall as a tandem, but not in a way that prevents him from having an easy dump-off into Gortat.
One more problem with this coverage is Karl-Anthony Towns needs to be deeper into the help line in the paint and trust Andrew Wiggins to either run a weak side shooter off the 3-point line or force a pass and hope the help comes to that shooter.
Second possession: John Wall long pull-up jumper
This is a play for Bradley Beal in which he’s running Zach LaVine from the baseline to the other side of the court to curl off a screen. Zach doesn’t come around too cleanly on the screen but he navigates it well enough to get there before Beal can feel comfortable getting a shot off. He forces Beal to give up the ball, and then he plays a pick situation with Dieng well enough to force a cross-court pass to Wall on the right wing.
Rubio’s closeout and Wall’s position make him turn a spot-up deep 3-pointer into a dribble pull-up long 2-point jumper. But Rubio is worried about the drive and the finish on his closeout gets sloppy and he protects against a drive that never happens. He’s contesting this shot but Wall isn’t and shouldn’t be worried about it because Rubio is off-balance. Splash.
Wall is an improved shooter over the last couple years than what we’re used to seeing from him earlier in his career. This season, he’s hitting 40% on pull-up jumpers and 34.5% on pull-up 3-pointers. That’s not great but it’s also not bad enough to feel like not contesting him properly would result in a miss. Thems the breaks sometimes.
Third possession: Markieff Morris pull-up mid-range jumper
This is one of two stops the Wolves got in the final five minutes. Otto Porter brings the ball up and throws an entry pass to Markieff Morris at the left elbow. The point of the play is eventually to get a side pick-and-roll with Wall and Gortat on the right side, but Wall opts to feed it back to Morris against Towns. Morris half-asses his way through a couple of moves and takes a contested mid-range jumper just inside the free throw line. It goes clank.
Nothing too special here to break down. Morris doesn’t really put in a great effort to get a good shot and KAT covers him about as well as you could hope to force the miss.
Fourth possession: Otto Porter mid-range step-back and friendly bounce
Dribble penetration from Wall kicks the ball to Morris on the right wing. Morris then kicks it to Porter in the right corner so he can set a pick to free him up on a drive to the middle. The Wolves switch it with Wiggins taking Morris and KAT taking Porter. Towns guards heavily against the drive but instead of sliding his feet into the middle, he brings his feet together as Porter starts making his step-back move.
This leaves Towns with zero chance to properly contest the shot. Porter lets it fly from just on top of the free throw line. Even though he hits back iron, he gets the friendly bounce to drop it home. Maybe Towns contesting it better causes a worse carom off the rim? Tough to say but bad technique for sure on the defensive footwork.
Jim Petersen often mentions how Towns isn’t great at getting into a stance. KAT is pretty inconsistent with it. He has quick enough feet to make up ground against perimeter players, but when your feet come together, it doesn’t matter how quick they are.
Fifth possession: John Wall with a transition layup
John Wall is fast. He’s faster than just about anybody in the NBA. Maybe everybody. But that doesn’t mean he has to go full speed in order to put you on your heels. After a miss by the Wolves, Wall ends up with the ball, pushing into the middle of the floor with a shooter on the wing and Gortat getting into the paint. Wall takes his time as LaVine cover the shooter, Rubio tries to get in Wall’s way, and Wiggins tangles with Gortat.
Wall is too strong for Rubio, who is avoiding a foul while still trying to be a roadblock. By the time Wall has bumped Rubio off his needed position and Wiggins has ensured a dump-off to Gortat isn’t going to happen, Andrew isn’t able to recover enough to block the shot. Too easy for Wall.
Most frustrating part of this? Where are Towns and Dieng getting back to body Gortat?
As we all know, the Wolves have been abysmal in transition defense. Either the effort isn’t consistent or they seem disorganized in whom to cover in those situations. Wall actually isn’t a great transition scorer in recent years. He’s 22nd out of 28th in scoring efficiency this season for players with at least 100 transition possessions. Last year he was 35th of 39 players with at least 200 possessions. I guess he just needs to play the Wolves’ transition defense to improve.
Sixth possession: Wall gets another transition layup
This one I didn’t think was so bad by the Wolves. Aside from not doing a great job of getting back, LaVine gives a pretty good effort against Wall and nearly gets the block as he’s retreating. Wall is just much quicker getting the ball up to the backboard.
The most frustrating part of this is these transition clutch layups by Wall came on consecutive plays. Built the lead to four points and Tom Thibodeau called a timeout.
Seventh possession: Bradley Beal comes off a screen for a 3-pointer
I watched this play about 10 times trying to figure out what the plan was between Dieng and LaVine defending this off-ball screen. I just can’t imagine what the communication was here, if any at all occurred. It’s a very basic action on a pindown of sorts. LaVine unfortunately has to navigate Gortat and Dieng to get a contest on the shot. Too easy for Beal.
Seriously, what the hell is Gorgui doing there? Am I missing something here? Why wouldn’t you just switch it if that’s how you’re going to shade it and then live with help coming against a Gortat post-up?
Eighth possession: Marcin Gortat alley-oop layup
Speaking of horrible decisions on off-ball screens, this was the clincher for deciding which approach to take on the recap. Wall has the ball high above the 3-point line on the left side of the floor. Gortat is setting a weak side elbow pick for Beal to free him up moving toward the perimeter. For some reason I can’t figure out, Gorgui hedges it like it’s a hard show on a pick-and-roll. The problem with this is LaVine is chasing Beal like it’s just a regular off-ball screen.
Gortat is free to slip to the basket, where he finishes an alley-oop layup against a late arriving Towns.
I can’t blame Towns for not playing more toward the help line in the middle of the floor because he’s on the strong side covering Morris in the corner. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have reacted quicker to the rotation, but I’m still not sure that’s his bad either. I could be wrong but with the positioning on the floor, you are supposed to keep within closeout distance of the strong side shooter. Dieng clearly disagrees because he points at Towns wondering where he was in help.
It’s either a horrible decision by Dieng or a miscommunication by Towns and Dieng. Either way, it’s an easy assist for Wall.
Ninth possession: Marcin Gortat turnover
This is a pick-and-roll with Wall and Gortat. Rubio and Towns are defending it. Nemanja Bjelica rotates from the weak side in a late fashion but still manages to disrupt Gortat’s handle of the ball enough. It’s a turnover — their second stop of the final five minutes. I don’t know. Who cares?
At that point, they were going to need a minor miracle, anyway, but I guess it’s a small victory in the final five minutes.
Tenth possession: John Wall hit free throws
Both of them.
All in all, that’s how you give up 170 points per 100 clutch possessions in a single five-minute stretch. Wiggins was an incredible scorer on a night LaVine didn’t have it and Towns was mostly fine. Maybe you can be upset at the crunch time offense, but I didn’t hate it. It was the defense that was the problem.
But hey, at least Brandon Rush played and seemed to play well!