When LaPhonso Ellis plays center, the Wolves are vicious inside
David Kern

Two months into the 2000-01 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves were, to quote my last column, "a deeply flawed ball club with about a 50-50 chance of falling out of the playoffs for the first time in five years." Since then, of course, the Wolves have amassed a 13-3 record, including a franchise-record ten straight wins, and as I write this are just one and a half games behind Utah in the battle for a number-two seed in the NBA playoffs. The obvious question: What has the team done to make my forecast so wrong?

The conventional wisdom is to credit the team's offense. The Wolves generate a greater proportion of their points through mid-range jump shots (instead of lay-ups, free throws, or three-pointers) than any other team club in the NBA. So the thinking is that Minnesota flounders or, as in recent weeks, thrives based on the accuracy of those j's. There is evidence to support this theory. Through the end of January, the median shooting percentage in the NBA was 44.1 per cent. In games where the Wolves' shooters were better than average, the team's record was 26-9.

But a stronger case can be made that the team's hot streak is primarily the result of an improved defense. During the first two months of the season, when the Wolves were losing nearly as often as they won, the team's shooting percentage was already among the half-dozen best in the NBA. At the same time, Minnesota was allowing the highest field-goal percentage in the 29-team league. When the Wolves' hold their opponents to a shooting percentage below the 44.1 per cent median, their record (a splendid 18-3) is even better than when they are shooting well.

Put simply, while the team's offense has been sharper in recent weeks, the more dramatic and significant improvement has taken place at the other end of the court. There is an assortment of interrelated reasons for this upgrade.

  • Shoring up the weak links: "More than on offense, defense is a team concept. A lot of the time, you're really only as good as your worst guy," Wolves coach Flip Saunders said after the Wolves victory over the Lakers. Indeed, earlier this season, the Wolves' half-court D was frequently sabotaged by two weak links in the starting five, off-guard Chauncey Billups and center Rasho Nesterovic.

    During his brief NBA career, the six-foot-three Billups has never been known as a staunch defender, even when matched up against smaller point guards. Asked to start as an off-guard--where he had to play against taller, generally more scoring-oriented players--the first-year Timberwolf not only had to learn a new system at a relatively new position, he was physically overmatched. The Wolves wisely replaced Billups with Anthony Peeler, who is only an inch taller, but knows the position, understands Saunders's defensive sets, and, quite frankly, seems to take more pride in shutting down his opponent.

    The Billups alibis don't apply to Nesterovic, a seven-footer who has been with the Wolves for more than a year and a half now. If anything, Rasho seems even more bereft than he was last season trying to parse Saunders's defensive rotations. Schooled in Europe--where simplistic, lazy zone-oriented defenses predominate, and where the game is less rugged--he lacks the instincts, toughness, and tenacity to be an effective defender. In particular, his half-assed switches when defending the pick-and-roll play leave him and his affected teammate in no man's land while opponents decide which of their unguarded players should sink an open shot.

    Nesterovic remains a starter only because the Wolves can't afford to let his fragile confidence plummet any further. But when the team needs a lift in the second quarter or is trying to close out a victory at crunch time, Saunders invariably relies on LaPhonso Ellis to man the center position. Compensating for his lack of height with a synergistic mix of savvy and bruising aggressiveness, the six-foot-eight Ellis is a perfect fit for the Wolves' quick, disruptive defensive rotations. It's no coincidence that the team's lack of interior toughness along with its vulnerability to high-low pick-and-rolls were minimized once Saunders began extending Phonse's playing time.

  • Health: In the decade that I've been covering the Wolves, no player has had more of a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation in back-to-back months than point guard Terrell Brandon. At the end of December, Brandon seemed distracted as he listlessly set-up the half-court offense (his longtime forte). He was also shamefully lethargic guarding players out on the perimeter. In January his performance at both ends of the court was better than that of any other point guard in the game.

    The stoic Brandon, enigmatic throughout his tenure with the Wolves, claims he is playing no differently, a patent absurdity to even casual fans. The more plausible explanation is that he has had difficulty playing hurt. A week into January, Saunders let it slip that Brandon told the coach his chronic ankle injuries were feeling better than they had in five years. Brandon, who took heat from both the media and Saunders after publicly expressing frustration with his ankle problems in December, now refuses to discuss the issue. But whether it is the absence of pain or his fiery, classy response to all the trade rumors that had him going to the Knicks for Allen Houston, Brandon's defense has never been better. Using his quick hands the way a poke-checker wields his stick in hockey, he has risen to the top of the league in steals, dodging and fighting his way through picks--providing pressure on the perimeter that simply wasn't there earlier in the season.  

    Improved health has also bolstered the defense of Wally Szczerbiak, who was hobbled by an off-season knee operation at the beginning of the year (he still wears a brace to lessen the strain). And after years of battling an assortment of physical woes, Ellis is slowly but surely convincing Saunders that he can withstand the thirty-plus minutes of playing time that will be required if the Wolves are going to get beyond the first round of the playoffs.

  • Trust: More than any other word, trust is invoked by Saunders and his players to explain the team's defensive improvement. That's because on defense, far more frequently than on offense, one player's lapse can make another player look bad. With Ellis and Peeler in the lineup and Brandon and Szczerbiak sufficiently recovered from injury, the Wolves are playing with cohesive aggression. That only happens when each player trusts his teammates will properly recognize and respond to the split-second decisions required to execute traps and defensive rotations.

  • Muscle and experience: During the Wolves' hot streak, the three players off the bench whose roles seem to have been enhanced the most are Ellis, and forwards Sam Mitchell and Reggie Slater. Each member of this trio is over 30, has at least five years of NBA experience, and is not afraid to use his body to punish opponents on defense. Together, they provide the Wolves with a more intimidating physical dimension than any of the other finesse-oriented squads Saunders has coached. This is a vital component in a league that, despite recent rule changes, requires players to bump-and-grind. While Slater is simply a banger, Ellis and the ever-resourceful Mitchell are smart muscle, with enough knowledge to anticipate, then deprive opponents of their favorite move. The two have enough court awareness, for instance, to close in from the weak side to prevent opposing guards from moving around a pick and penetrating to the basket.

  • Big man mobility: Kevin Garnett has not been mentioned until now because we are talking about the team's defensive improvements rather than its constant strengths. But when KG is in the game with Ellis, the Wolves boast a power forward and a center who can trap and rotate out near the perimeter, yet still recover quickly enough to go back and guard their man on the inside. This extends the team's perimeter defense (the Wolves have allowed the fewest three-point field-goal attempts in the league this season), creating a scrambling chaos that allows Brandon--who knows the geometry of half-court offenses as well as anyone in the NBA--to steal hurried passes, which generate fast-break points the other way.

  • Practice: Many people, including me, laughed when Saunders said that practice and preparation were more important to the Wolves' fortunes than the strength or weakness of their schedule. But while the Wolves have posted a winning record against the league's best teams when afforded a day of practice, the team has won only three of twelve games played on the second night of back-to-back contests. In part, this is due to endurance. But the fact that Saunders emphasizes defensive drills and specific ways to counteract the tendencies of opposing offenses during practice is even more relevant. The man is a very good coach, and has a team full of coachable players. He's even got Todd Day--a notorious gunner and an indifferent defender throughout his seven-year career--playing unselfishly at both ends of the court.

  • An Improved Offense: When you make your shots on offense, you have time to get back and regroup on defense. Earlier this season, with Brandon in a shooting slump and Szczerbiak slowed by his knee injury, the Wolves' offense was too reliant on KG, who was getting frustrated as he tried in vain to surmount double and triple coverage. During the win streak the Wolves have often begun with KG feeding Brandon for outside jump shots, then gone to Szczerbiak (who may be the only non-center in the league with a career shooting percentage of over 50 per cent) when teams try to shut down both Garnett and Brandon. After a December slump, the Wolves' passing game has again become one of the smartest, most efficient, and most crowd-pleasing experiences in today's NBA.  

    But make no mistake, the games are being won with an improved defense.

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