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Admire Stephon Marbury's slashes to the basket, behind-the-back bounce passes, and crunch-time scoring all you want, but it's his defensive improvement that is a fundamental reason the Minnesota Timberwolves have taken another leap forward this season. As soon as the opposing point guard receives the in-bounds pass and heads up the floor, Marbury is there, dogging his man's every dribble a good 90 feet away from the basket he's defending. It's a marathon effort to give his team a small but crucial edge, wearing on his legs and almost invariably forcing Marbury to run into a big man setting a screen. But done well, it digs at the psyche of the point guard and costs opposing offenses an extra three or four seconds to run their half-court sets, reducing their chances of a high-percentage shot.
"Defense starts with your point guard taking on their point guard," says Malik Sealy, the wiry shooting guard the Wolves signed away from Detroit during the off-season specifically to hound opposing shooters. "Ours is doing the job." Anyone who saw Marbury's defensive indifference as a rookie just two years ago would have trouble imagining he'd ever merit Sealy's accolade. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that Marbury, like the Wolves' other superstar-in-the-making, Kevin Garnett, is a performer who plays to win. Challenged by coach Flip Saunders's system of having the point guard play full court on defense, Marbury has devoted himself to rigorous conditioning drills during his two off-seasons as a pro, coming back with added sinew throughout his body and an equal degree of toughness in his mind. He doesn't yet rank with Gary Payton and Jason Kidd as one of the league's defensive elite at his position, but he is no longer a liability, either.
The truism that "teams win with defense" has become so hackneyed that only die-hard fans stop to dissect how and why it is so. In pro basketball the level of athleticism is so high that most players can score when guarded one-on-one yet would usually be stifled--to the point of boring the audience--if the league permitted zone defenses; in a zone, NBA players could effectively cover so much ground that you'd have to widen the court to give offenses a chance. To accomplish superior defense in the pro game without getting whistled for playing in an illegal zone alignment, a team must instantaneously rotate its coverage in response to the movement of the ball so that two men are guarding the shooter (if he is particularly dangerous or in position for a high-percentage shot), each of the other three defenders is guarding a man, and the opponent who's left unguarded isn't in a position to be an immediate scoring threat.
That's fairly logical, basic strategy. But executing it is fiendishly difficult. It requires physical endurance, size, and speed, plus experience playing in the league (so you know your opponents' tendencies) and experience playing together (so you develop cohesion and rhythm). It's a selfless and demanding pursuit. In the NBA, "character" and "chemistry" are essentially code words for defensive acumen.
The college game, of course, is different. "You don't learn to play [NBA] defense overnight," says veteran Wolves forward Sam Mitchell. "In college, even man-to-man defenses are more like a zone." This, he explains, is because when man-to-man breaks down, college players are permitted to slip into a zone to regroup. "In the pros, almost anybody can beat you [on offense]," he adds. There are more options and more strengths that have to be negated, which puts a premium on absorbing scouting reports and keeping an ever-evolving mental catalog of what opponents like to do. "Good defense is making somebody beat you with their weaknesses," Mitchell concludes.
The exciting thing about this year's edition of the Wolves is that each player in the starting five is an upgrade over last year's quintet, and Minnesota also has more quality defenders coming off the bench. At point guard, there's Marbury's aforementioned improvement. His backup, Bobby Jackson, is a rugged competitor whose forte is defense, and who plays bigger than his six-two height. At shooting guard, last year's tandem was Chris Carr, who was and remains the club's worst defender, and an over-the-hill Doug West. Compare that to this season's off-duo of Anthony Peeler and Sealy. When the Wolves swapped West for Peeler last February, people expected a better shooter and passer. Instead Peeler is West's equal on D, a solid but not sterling talent in a one-on-one situation who's savvy and dedicated enough to keep the rotations flowing.
Sealy, on the other hand, is a six-seven monster in the defensive backcourt. "I've always enjoyed it and taken pride in it," he says. "Growing up in playground games, I noticed early on that the teams that won had somebody who played defense. You stay in the league long enough and you learn who likes to go right, where somebody likes to shoot from, what their favorite moves are--and you take those away."
Saunders and Wolves VP of personnel Kevin McHale allowed crowd favorite and class act Terry Porter to go to Miami in the off-season and essentially replaced him with Sealy. Smart move. Marbury no longer needs Porter's steadying influence in the locker room or on the court, and Peeler provides the long-range shooting that was Porter's other primary contribution. Meanwhile, the Wolves no longer have to compensate for Porter's slow foot speed in their rotations. Sealy's value to the franchise showed up in neon during Minnesota's first home game, when a tired San Antonio team came in and tried to use long-range shooting specialist Steve Kerr to take the offensive pressure off their weary front court of Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and Sean Elliott. Sealy erased Kerr from the game, permitting him only two (unsuccessful) shots.