Minnesota’s flawless defense, what’s the secret?

The Minnesota Timberwolves are the best defensive team in the 2023-2024 season. They have a 109.1 defensive rating and 107.1 points allowed per game, both of which lead the league. Their dominant defense has led them to a 36-16 record and first place in the West. At this rate, they are certain to enter the All-Star break at the top of the Western Conference.

The secret to Minnesota’s defense is twofold. The combination of defensive talent and the ability of the coaching staff under Chris Finch to put it all together. Let’s take a look at how Minnesota plays defense in their last two games.

It was a battle for first place in the Western Conference. Minnesota moved into first place in the West with a 107-101 victory over Oklahoma City, one of the league’s top offenses.

Oklahoma City was a top offensive team with the fifth-best offensive rating. No team this season has been able to neutralize the trendy 5-out offense. It’s a scheme that puts three-point shooting big man Chat Holmgren on the perimeter, forcing opposing big men to the outside, and then allows Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to attack the open lane, creating points and passing lanes.

How Oklahoma City’s offense was neutralized and held to 101 points.

Rudy Gobert and Jaylen McDaniels’ positional disruption was key.

Minnesota’s starting five is usually Mike Conley, Anthony Edwards, Jaylen McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert. It’s a rather unique lineup, with two guards, a wingman, and two big men. The basic framework of the defense is for Gobert, a former Defensive Player of the Year, to guard the basket and spread the floor as much as possible.

If Minnesota were a team that only played this basic defense, they wouldn’t be able to put up the dominant defensive numbers they do. Case in point: the game against Oklahoma City. The presence of stretch 5 Chat Holmgren on the perimeter, who can feed Minnesota’s perimeter defense with good counters, would have neutralized the Sooners.

However, Minnesota set up an interesting matchup early in the game. It was a defense that put guard Josh Giddy on big man Gobert and wingman McDaniels on big man Holmgren.

This tactic is possible because of both players’ understanding of the defense. First, McDaniels is a wingman, but his 6-foot-10 wingspan and ability to defend the basket on his own is enough to match up with Holmgren, a slimmer big man. Giddy’s weak outside shot and lack of speed means that if you mark him properly and defend the perimeter, you’re going to get shots on Giddy and not give anyone else a chance to get a shot. In other words, you’re sagging or throwing him off defense.

On the night, Giddy scored 13 points against Kobe. At first glance, this might seem like a decent performance, but Oklahoma City’s offense was completely paralyzed during Giddy’s minutes, and he had a -17 scoring margin, the worst of any player. Despite his stats, the team’s offense was completely stagnant, and Giddy only played 19 minutes and 10 seconds.

Matched up with McDaniels, Holmgren had his worst performance of the season, scoring just four points. Oklahoma City’s offensive system was completely disrupted by the unusual tactic of putting Gobert on guard Giddy, and the Thunder were forced to settle for a 101-point loss.

Oklahoma City has scored 101, 102, and 103 points in three games against Minnesota this season. Their season average is 120.5 points. At first glance, it seems like Oklahoma City’s 5-out offense would be the perfect counter to Minnesota’s 2-big man offense, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Minnesota is eating Oklahoma City alive. And the key to that is a unique defensive scheme.

You have to take into account that Milwaukee was without Damian Lillard. But even with that in mind, the Bulls held Milwaukee to 105 points and came away with a 105-129 victory.

Milwaukee got a career-high 27 points from the unknown AJ Green. But this was 100% what Minnesota wanted. Milwaukee’s key game plan was to get scoring from someone other than Yannis Adetokunbo. The goal was to keep the 1-option Adetokunbo from even touching the ball, which resulted in Adetokunbo being held to 17 points and a -18 scoring margin. That’s well below his season average of 30.7 points.

Minnesota used McDaniels as their matchup man on this night. When the entry pass was supposed to go to Adetokunbo, McDaniels actively prevented him from catching the ball by getting in front of him instead of behind him. This is called a fronting defense, which means man-marking between the passer and the player who wants to receive the pass.

In this defense, it’s very difficult to even pass the ball. Once Milwaukee’s other players were on offense, Kobe’s drop coverage would take over the defense.

It’s not a 100% lockdown defense. On the occasional pass to Adetokunbo, three or four Minnesota defenders would adjust their defense to Adetokunbo’s penetration lane and put pressure on him. It’s not a double team, but it’s not a one-on-one man-marking either. And if he did break through, they were aggressive in sending help to stop him. The shots that 안전놀이터 Adetokunbo gave up on the night were either no help defense or passive help defense. Adetokunbo is impossible for an MVP-level player to mark one-on-one. Minnesota tried to contain Adetokounmpo by sending too much help defense.

This aggressive help defense has a clear weakness. Someone is bound to get open on the perimeter and give up an open 3-pointer. However, Minnesota’s defense and defensive intensity is fantastic. They erase the weaknesses of their offensive help defense by filling defensive holes as much as they can with extra athleticism and making sure they get the open man. Nazr Reed, McDaniels, Anthony Edwards, and others rotate vigorously to fill the holes.

With this frontcourt and aggressive help defense, Adetokunbo was held to just 17 points, and the result was a blowout.

The No. 1 ranked defense in the 2023-2024 regular season is Minnesota. There’s no disputing that. Barring injuries, it’s likely that Minnesota will continue its dominance.

But is Minnesota’s defense perfect? Once the playoffs roll around, matchups are going to be crucial for Minnesota, as they need to finish higher than last season.

Aside from Oklahoma City’s offensive prowess, Minnesota is coming off a 110-89 win over Denver in their only meeting. The question is, which teams can exploit Minnesota’s weaknesses, or in other words, is this defense perfect for every team?

For one thing, this near-perfect defense has exposed some weaknesses against teams with more wing resources. A prime example is the New Orleans Pelicans, who are far down the standings. They’re 2-2 on the season, but have lost both of their last two games. New Orleans is characterized by the fact that at least three of the five players on the court are classified as wingmen, including Zion Williams, Herbert Jones, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Hawkins, and Najee Marshall. Minnesota’s two-big lineup has proven relatively weak against teams with this combination of mobility and height. New Orleans is the only team to score 117 points or more against Minnesota in three of the four games.

That’s why the Los Angeles Clippers, who they’ll face in the upper rounds of the playoffs, are the biggest risk. The Clippers are a team that, like New Orleans, is all around New Orleans-compatible, with wing talent making up the bulk of their lineup. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are playing at the top of their game, while Terrence Mann, Norman Powell, and Amir Coffey are among the other wing options coming off the bench. Minnesota has a top wing defender in McDaniels, but their other wing defenders aren’t as good, with Kyle Anderson being their #1 wing defender off the bench. If Minnesota can address their concerns about teams deploying multiple wing resources, they’ll be a complete defense in the playoffs this season. However, if they don’t address these weaknesses, there’s a distinct possibility that their defense could fall apart, exposing significant matchup weaknesses to unexpected teams.

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