In the eight years that Flip Saunders has been coaching the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team's identity has been built around the crisp efficiency of its passing offense. Deadly accurate mid-range shooting, a surfeit of assists, and a paucity of turnovers is the formula that, despite precious few trips to the free throw line, has made the Wolves one of the league's more reliable scoring machines.
But, as Wolves fans know only too well, the franchise has never won a single playoff series. In pro basketball as in all team sports, a club's defensive prowess is what matters most in the postseason. That's why, while it's been great fun watching Latrell Sprewell and especially Sam Cassell join Kevin Garnett as potent cogs in Saunders's offensive system (Minnesota currently boasts the NBA's best field-goal percentage), a bigger source of joy--and hope for the playoffs--has been the upgraded defense of the revamped Wolves.
Even after getting blistered for 119 points in Saturday night's horrendous loss to Dallas, Minnesota presently ranks ninth among the league's 29 teams in scoring defense. The last time the Wolves finished the season among the top 10 in that category was in 1990-91, the swan song of the Bill Musselman era. Back then, the lack of points scored by Minnesota's opponents was largely due to Muss's stall-and-crawl-ball offensive tempo, which deflated scoring totals for both teams. What makes the current Wolves' performance on D so impressive is that they are shutting down opponents without retarding the efficient pace and flow of their own offense. Compare that with the eight teams with stingier scoring defenses: San Antonio ranks down at 18th in the NBA in points scored, and the other seven are among the league's eight most anemic offenses.
There has been a subtle but profound change in the team's personality this season, created by a better balancing of priorities between offense and defense. Of the five starters who took the court for Friday night's game against Atlanta--Garnett, Cassell, Sprewell, Trenton Hassell, and Ervin Johnson--only Cassell has established his identity more by scoring points than by denying them. In the locker room after that game, Garnett agreed with the assessment that this is the best defensive Wolves team of his career, and explained why. "We've got guys who actually want to play defense. We've had guys in the past who have been talented skillwise and blessed with physical features, but haven't had the effort for 48 minutes to play defense and didn't really want to grasp the concept to play defense." I wonder if Rasho Nesterovic, Wally Szczerbiak, and even Kendall Gill and Anthony Peeler felt that slap?
In that sense, the early onslaught of injuries that have besieged the Wolves this season may have been a temporary blessing in disguise. If Troy Hudson and Szczerbiak weren't felled by ankle and foot woes, the team wouldn't have plucked Hassell from the waiver wire, let alone given him enough minutes to prove himself as the best investment of a minimum salary in franchise history. Likewise, if Michael Olowokandi and Mark Madsen hadn't been sidelined, Johnson wouldn't have demonstrated that he remains a sagacious and valuable defender--matchups permitting--for 25 minutes or so per game.
Hassell is the quintessential prize at the bottom of the Crackerjack box. Inexplicably dumped by the Bulls at age 24, he came to Minnesota in prime condition and hungry to fill whatever role was available. Well, how about defensive stopper out on the perimeter? Thus far he's shut down offensive stars renowned for their strength (Ron Artest), quickness (Shawn Marion), shooting touch (Ray Allen), and all-around skill (Paul Pierce), helping fuel Wolves victories on every occasion. On a roster that includes Sprewell--who may have lost a step or two, but whose defensive leadership and desire haven't flagged--it's stunning to consider that Hassell has been Minnesota's best perimeter defender this season.
With Spree and Hassell ably patrolling the wings, KG has been able to move down in the low post on D, where, Johnson's contribution notwithstanding, he's been desperately needed. Garnett's unparalleled combination of size, quickness, and agility in the paint is the backbone of the team's matchup zone, and his shot-blocking skills are too often the best deterrent to the dribble penetration by opponents, which remains the Wolves' soft spot on D. As good as he is, he can't be expected to nullify the behemoths in the Western Conference, and a bevy of games against the Lakers, Spurs, and Rockets await. Kandi Man, get well soon, and take a cue from these new-look Wolves: Defensive intensity is the abiding priority.