MINNEAPOLIS - The Timberwolves were winners of four of their previous five games and creeping back into the Western Conference playoff race as they went on the road last week.
Then everything fell apart, as has often been the case this season when the Wolves play away from Target Center. The main culprit was familiar, too: porous defense.
In three losses, the Wolves surrendered an average of 129 points a game. Their defensive rating of 123.6 over the past three games is last in the NBA, more than four points per 100 possessions worse than the 29th-ranked Lakers.
“That’s not winning basketball,” Tyus Jones said.
To say the least. Jones said the Wolves have been a half-step late on their rotations, aren’t following the game plan for 48 minutes and aren’t there for one another on the defensive end.
“We’re just playing in spurts right now, and that’s now how you win games,” Jones said. “It’s something we’ve got to correct, and really regroup and refocus.”
They started that process Monday, March 4. Interim coach Ryan Saunders said the Wolves talked at length about about what it’s going to take for them to win games.
“We’ve got to come in with a defensive mind-set and identity and a togetherness that it hurts to get scored on,” Saunders said. “Like any team in this league, if you’re not going to play defense, there’s a lot of teams that can score and outscore you.”
Karl-Anthony Towns says it hurts to lose any game, but giving up points at the rate the Wolves are is “more embarrassing.”
“We’re just not executing,” Towns said. “We didn’t execute our game plan, we didn’t execute the pride and energy.”
Before the road trip, the Wolves appeared to be turning a corner. Their defensive rating over those five games was 112 - not great, but not horrible. It was the second time this season Minnesota appeared to be finding its stride, along with a strong stretch after the Jimmy Butler trade that brought Robert Covington and Dario Saric to Minnesota.
“In spurts we have had better defensive intensity throughout games,” Saunders said, “but we need to become a really every-night team for us to take the next step.”
Minnesota’s defensive collapses seem to coincide with an injury. Whether it was losing Jimmy Butler last season, losing Robert Covington earlier this season or losing Luol Deng in the game at Atlanta last week, the Wolves haven’t coped well with losses on the defensive end.
“Injuries are always tough,” Jones said. “They always throw a weird wrinkle into things, and guys have to step up, especially when we’ve been in a good groove, playing good basketball, putting together a few games of good basketball, then a guy goes down who’s been a key piece to what we’re doing. It’s tough, and guys have got to be willing to step up.”
That hasn’t necessarily happened. The Wolves’ young wings haven’t proven capable of anchoring Minnesota’s perimeter defense.
Saunders noted the maturation process for young players has to include developing an urgency and intensity on defense.
“You want to become better defensively by really knowing how hard it is to defend in this league,” Saunders said. “You obviously want them to learn sooner than later. … We need to respond quicker now.”