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I Love the 80s

Keep your eye on the rock. No, not my ring, the ball: The Wolves' new coach Dwane Casey (right)
David Kern

You know the Wolves are playing well when Wally Szczerbiak is asked to comment about the team's defense. Sure enough, it was last Saturday night at the Target Center, after the Lakers became Minnesota's fifth straight victim, and ninth in 11 games, when a beat reporter set a softball question on a T for Wally's elucidation. How would he compare the team's current perimeter D with last year's?

"Pfffttt!" the normally voluble player responded, a succinct sputter seemingly borne from the collision of two sentiments--"Duh, any idiot can see we're better this year," and "Man, we are so much better this year." Sweeping his gaze across the assembled media around his locker stall, he eventually added, with a tad of impatience, "I don't know if I can comment on that better than you can. You see us out there." But that first sound might have been his most insightful quote of the year.

Last season, even obscure floor generals such as Rafer Alston and Chucky Atkins (both since traded to other teams) could befuddle Minnesota with pick-and-roll fundamentals, just one of the ways opponents penetrated to the hoop with impunity. This year, as Szczerbiak also got around to noting, "We're taking it personally not to allow guys to just walk into the lane."

Part of the difference is that aged malcontents Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell have been supplanted by the barbed-wire Serb, Marko Jaric, and the pride of Austin Peay, Trenton Hassell. On Saturday, Jaric hounded obscure Laker point guards Smush Parker and Sasha Vujacic down to a combined three points (on 1-10 shooting) and three assists, while Hassell was hassling superstar Kobe Bryant into seven turnovers (two more than the entire Wolves team) and making Kobe earn every one of his 35 points.

But another, larger difference is the arrival of coach Dwane Casey. Six weeks into the 2005-'06 season, it is not too soon to start admiring the transformation Casey has enacted on the Wolves' identity. During the nine years Flip Saunders was at the helm, a sophisticated offense was Minnesota's signature style, featuring crisp passing, few turnovers, and a plethora of open, mid-range jump shots. The one year Saunders was able to supplement that offense with an equally capable D, it happened by accident, after injuries to Szczerbiak and Michael Olowokandi forced Flip to insert defensive-oriented role players Hassell and Ervin Johnson into the starting lineup.

From the day he was hired last summer, Casey preached that smart, tenacious defense would be the Wolves' new calling card. That's exactly the kind of cheap talk heard from coaches taking over flailing teams--the old "we'll play hard" bullshit. But just 18 games into his NBA head coaching career, Casey has actually kept his word. By almost any statistical measure, Minnesota has quickly become one of the league's elite defensive teams.

Through December 11, the Wolves are limiting their opponents to just 88.8 points per game. Only Houston and Memphis have a stingier average, and both of those clubs play a slow-paced style that has kept their own scoring under 90 points per game (as compared to Minnesota's 93.5 p.p.g. on offense). The Wolves are fifth among the 30 NBA teams in making their opponents miss their shots, and better than anybody at defending three-point attempts. Last year, teams nailed 36.3 percent of their jumpers from behind the three-point arc against Minnesota's perimeter defenders. This season, the percentage is 28.7. No other team is below 30 percent.

By now, Wolves fans are learning to expect that the six-foot-seven-inch Jaric will be denying passing lanes into the post with his enormous wingspan; that Eddie Griffin will come out of nowhere (actually the weak side) to block a shot if and when a dribbler does get into the paint; that Kevin Garnett and Trenton Hassell will continue to restake their reputations as superb on-ball defenders. From the top to the bottom of the roster, the emphasis is on defense, the stuff from which legitimate playoff contenders are fashioned--even in a supposed rebuilding year for the team.

Rating defenses strictly by the numbers is a risky enterprise. But perhaps the best single gauge is looking at an opponent's scoring efficiency--total points allowed divided by the number of field goal attempts. Although it can't register turnovers in its equation, scoring efficiency does accommodate such factors as pace of the game, the added significance of three-pointers, and the ability of offenses to draw fouls and get to the free throw line. Through their first 18 games, the Wolves allowed 1,599 points on 1,421 field goal attempts for an opponent scoring efficiency of 1.125 points per shot. Only San Antonio--widely regarded as the best defensive team in the NBA--is lower, permitting 1.112 points per shot. Three other teams generally lauded for their stellar defense--Memphis, Indiana, and Detroit, respectively--round out the top five.

 

Those wisely hesitant about jumping on the Wolves bandwagon despite the team's 12-7 start cite the relatively easy schedule Minnesota has enjoyed thus far. True enough, the team has faced precious few foes who are expected to venture deep into the playoffs this spring.

But it cannot be said that the Wolves' defense has been similarly untested. Nine of those first 19 games have been against opponents who currently rank among the top ten in the league in points per game; another five rank in the second ten, or middle tier, leaving just five others ranked among the bottom third in scoring.

Unlike Saunders, who paid exquisite lip service to defense but worked on his offense like a teenager waxing his hot rod, Casey has made the Wolves' D his steadfast priority. Rashad McCants, to pick an example of where the coach's dedication to D exceeds his common sense, is a glorious scorer learning the hard way that he won't play unless he can deny as many points as he registers. Others have taken the hint, including questionable defenders like Troy Hudson and Wally Szczerbiak, who have turned sitting on their asses into an art form by taking more charges in the past six weeks than in the previous three years with the team. Meanwhile, Griffin's primary source of pride has shifted from heaving up (frequently errant) three-pointers to blocking shots.

But, as always, Kevin Garnett is ultimately the most valuable contributor to this new identity. Casey's strategy is to aggressively contest shots all over the court, deploying traps, rotations, and sheer sweat equity to force shooters toward the sidelines and away from the hoop. KG naturally figures prominently in this system, meaning that the game's best defensive rebounder for the past three years is now concentrating more of his energy and momentum away from the basket until the shot goes up. The result is a simultaneous dip in Garnett's rebounds and the shooting percentage of Wolves opponents.

It's a typically selfless tour of duty from the superstar, who, quite frankly, isn't as spry as he was two or three years ago but still manages to be the team's smartest and most versatile defender. There isn't a player on the team that Garnett doesn't bail out on a regular basis, although Kandi and Wally owe him the most. When the MVP sets the example, the coach has a cornerstone for the foundation he is trying to build. For Casey's Timberwolves, slick is out, grime is in, and a return to the playoffs may not be as far away as once imagined.

Want more Hang Time? Britt Robson breaks down most individual Timberwolves games in his "Three-Pointers" on the City Pages's Balls! sports blog.


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