How the Timberwolves’ active hands have kept the defense above water

Patrick Beverley has helped the Minnesota Timberwolves' defense in a big way. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Patrick Beverley has helped the Minnesota Timberwolves' defense in a big way. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

Although NBA lineups have gotten smaller and quicker in recent years, the best way to stop opposing teams from putting the ball in the basket is still to put size on the court. The Minnesota Timberwolves don’t have that luxury, and so have had to make up ground in other areas — namely, with great hands.

How the Timberwolves’ active hands have kept the defense above water

Minnesota simply has a knack for getting their hands where opposing offenses don’t want them. Per, the Wolves average 9.5 steals and 6.2 blocks per game, good for fourth and third in the league, respectively.

Digging deeper, they’re good for 17.8 deflections (second) and 7.6 loose balls recovered (first) every night. Minnesota is creating extra opportunities for itself with its defense, an important trait for a team that struggles to execute.

The Wolves display these active hands at all levels of the defense. Karl-Anthony Towns, Jarred Vanderbilt and Naz Reid have used them to overcome their collective size deficiency around the rim and help Minnesota rank No. 10 in opponents’ points in the paint. Instead of meeting players at the height of their leap, the Wolves’ big men often get their hands on the ball as the opponent is rising up.

The Wolves have the length and athleticism to break up seemingly simple interior passes that would have led to easy points. Below, Jaden McDaniels rotates all the way from the wing down to deflect the alley-oop.

With bulldogs such as Patrick Beverley and an improved Anthony Edwards on the perimeter, guards have a hard time navigating the middle of the floor. Minnesota has been good at showing multiple bodies to probing ballhandlers, and the split-second of indecision that creates allows the Wolves’ guards to poke the ball away.

Minnesota has also displayed surprisingly instinctive anticipation in perimeter passing lanes. The Wolves have good length on the perimeter, which helps them eat up space on-ball when there’s less margin for error with reaction time.

Players with negative defensive reputations such as D’Angelo Russell (third on the team with 2.3 deflections per game) and Malik Beasley have been able to make their defensive impact in this area.

This has been a collective effort for Minnesota. Towns leads the team with 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks per contest, and while his steals per game rank second among centers, the Wolves have no players that rank in the top 25 in the league in either metric. Vanderbilt leads Minnesota with 2.5 deflections per game, which ranks No. 33.

The Wolves have gradually improved their defense to the point of being borderline elite. Their 104.4 defensive rating and 105 points per game allowed rank No. 7 and 10 in the league this year, respectively. But their ability to disrupt the opposing offense with active hands is the biggest reason behind their improvement, and it’s the kind of defense Minnesota can capitalize on.

For example, getting hands on the ball and turning teams over is crucial to avoid one of the Wolves’ biggest deficiencies: defensive rebounding. Minnesota ranks last in the league by far in offensive rebounds allowed and is No. 29 in opponents’ second-chance points, but turning opposing teams over and swatting shots before they get to the rim keeps the Wolves from getting into those traditional glass-cleaning situations.

Minnesota is far and away last in another category that shows how aggressive they are with their hands: fouling. That’s the flip side of this emphasis, and it has hurt the Wolves at times this season; everyone reading this likely knows about the meme that is McDaniels’ constant foul trouble.

But Minnesota will take the trade-off because of what the approach unlocks on the other end, as well. The Wolves are a below-average team by offensive rating and have struggled in halfcourt offense, but rank No. 1 in the NBA in points off turnovers with 21.1 per game.

That means the Wolves are not only limiting their opponents’ opportunities but capitalizing on them at a high rate, creating an advantage for themselves in the discrepancy. Minnesota ranks a solid No. 10 in fast-break points per game, which shows it can get out and run immediately off turnovers and get some easy baskets.

And when you have high-flying, magnetic players such as Edwards, these transition run-outs can create highlights capable of shifting a game’s momentum entirely on their own.

This has been a crucial aspect of the Wolves’ three-game winning streak. Minnesota has averaged 19.5 deflections and 24 points off turnovers in its wins over the Kings, Spurs, and Grizzlies, and it’s no coincidence that the Wolves have allowed just 94.5 points per game and won by an average margin of 23 in that stretch.

Next. 3 major takeaways from Wolves' winning streak. dark

Minnesota’s opportunistic defense has played a huge role in keeping the team afloat, and it has the team playing its best basketball of the season as the offense starts to heat up. The Wolves will have to improve offensively in order to beat better teams than they’ve faced recently, but if they maintain an above-average defense, it will be their hands that lead them there.