Earlier this month, in Brooklyn, Taj Gibson shuffled into the locker room prepared for the worst. The Timberwolves had just lost to the Nets in a game in which Brooklyn connected on 46.7 percent of its threes and 51.4 percent of its shots overall. Gibson — who played five seasons for coach Tom Thibodeau in Chicago before signing with Minnesota last summer — braced for a verbal beating. Instead, he got a pep talk.
“He came in and said he was proud of the way we played defense, the pick-and-roll defense is getting better, we are getting better as a unit,” Gibson told Yahoo Sports. “I looked at him and thought, ‘Boy, has he changed.’ He used to be really on top of guys, challenging guys, getting in guys’ faces. This is a different guy.”
Different guy, different team — one that may be the league’s most interesting over the second half of the season. Minnesota is 29-17, comfortably slotted in at fourth in the Western Conference, just two wins shy of matching last season’s total. Offense continues to be the ’Wolves’ strength — they are fourth in the league in efficiency, up from 10th last season. Defense, inexplicably — considering the taskmaster roaming the sidelines — remains a weakness, with the team ranked in the bottom third in the NBA for the second year in a row.
A weakness — for now, anyway. Since a horrifying October, Minnesota’s shaky defense has shown steady improvement. Points per possession have decreased over the last two months. Transition defense — a total disaster the first couple of months of the season — has tightened up. The pick-and-roll defense, which Gibson says is a focal point of every ’Wolves practice, has gotten better. There are still the occasional clunkers — the 108 points Minnesota surrendered in a loss to Orlando on Tuesday is a glaring example — but the Timberwolves have shown that when they are locked in, they can be pretty good.
“It’s about the sense of urgency,” Gibson said. “Sometimes guys come into the game thinking the game is played hard mostly in the fourth quarter. But it’s a 48-minute game. We have been playing some good halves, then run out of gas in the third quarter or blow a lead late in the fourth. Guys have to understand that playoff time starts now. You have to fight for position, especially in the West.”
So what’s behind the turnaround? Jimmy Butler, for one. Team sources say Butler — the ’Wolves’ ballyhooed offseason acquisition — has taken on a more vocal role within the team in recent weeks, particularly on defense. Butler, one of the NBA’s best two-way players, has prodded Minnesota’s two franchise cornerstones, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, to commit to the same effort on both ends of the floor.
Towns is interesting. The third-year center is already an offensive stud, averaging 20-plus points for the second year in a row, racking up double-doubles and shooting above 40 percent from three for the first time in his career. Defensively, the potential Towns flashed at Kentucky — the late Flip Saunders once compared Towns’ defense to Joakim Noah — has yet to materialize, and oftentimes when his defense comes up it’s off a comical breakdown in which he looks lost in coverage.
Yet to a man, the Timberwolves believe in Towns’ defensive skills. “He has great instincts,” Gibson said. “He can put up five blocks a game if he really wanted to. It comes down to that sense of urgency and being willing to get there. It’s just effort. Sometimes it’s about wanting to do the job. Young guys are so keyed in on offense. This is his first year on a winning team and understanding what it takes to go deep and win big in this league. I think he is handling it well. He’s a lot better than where he started earlier this year.”
Indeed, Towns’ defensive rating, like Minnesota’s, has improved every month. “He’s making plays he hasn’t made consistently [before],” Thibodeau said. Rival scouts say Towns has played more disciplined, not recklessly hunting down blocks, and has instead focused more on defending his man. “When he’s bad, it’s the second effort after a pass is made,” a scout who observed Towns recently told Yahoo Sports. “He has had a habit of making no attempt to either get back to his man or rotate to the helper’s man. Guys don’t want to help him on his man and leave the rim exposed, so they give up shots.”
Is the defensive improvement sustainable? The answer to that will determine if Minnesota is a first-round flameout or a dark-horse candidate to sneak into the conference finals. Thibodeau won’t look too far ahead, save to offer that if the ’Wolves are going to be a threat against top-tier teams in the West, they have to get better on that end of the floor. The young players, especially.
“You tend to measure a guy against somebody who maybe is in the league for six or seven years,” Thibodeau told Yahoo Sports. “We all tend to forget the steps that we made along the way. These guys you are going against, they have all the tricks of the trade, and you have to learn them. Patience is part of it. Also, the players’ drive and intelligence. Our young guys are getting better and better.”
Thibodeau claims he isn’t overly concerned with some of the low defensive rankings. He recalled, during his days as an assistant coach in Boston, long debates with Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren on the value of ratings systems. “I still haven’t seen one that’s very accurate,” Thibodeau said. “Mike would say, ‘If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.’” Instead, Thibodeau is focused on the things he can see. “Making multiple efforts, the ability to read things, those are the things you are looking for,” Thibodeau said.
Ultimately, any postseason success for Minnesota is gravy on an already successful season. The ’Wolves are on pace to finish above .500 for the first time since 2005 and to make the playoffs for the first time since ’04. Thibodeau the coach — a kindler, gentler version, perhaps — has succeeded in turning the team around in two short seasons and Thibodeau as team president, a title he insisted on, has done an excellent job of fleshing out the roster with veterans who double as role models for young players, as Thibs had in Chicago.
All that is to say that Minnesota doesn’t need to win a single playoff game to declare victory this season. But if the defense keeps improving, they will. And maybe a few more.
Popular video from Yahoo Sports: