Tom Thibodeau had plenty of points of emphasis when he took over the Timberwolves as head coach and president of basketball operations, but two that stood out were an increased commitment to defense and a desire to improve from three-point range.
One of those things is fun. One of those things is not fun. Guess which one the young Wolves have embraced first?
Yes, it’s the three-pointer. And it’s not even close. In fact, it’s by as wide a margin as you can have — and it helps explain why the Wolves, in spite of making some strides, are just 3-6 on the young season.
In a stunning early turnaround from previous seasons, when the Timberwolves neither shot many threes nor were much good at the ones they took, they are in the middle of the pack in made three-pointers per game this season (9.3) and No. 1 in the NBA in three-point percentage.
Yes, the Wolves are the best three-point shooting team in the NBA at 41.8 percent, and it’s not even close. The next-best team, San Antonio, sits at 38.6 percent. Individually, Andrew Wiggins — barely a 30 percent shooter from 3-point range in his first two seasons — leads the NBA at 54.8 percent from long-distance (17 for 31). Zach LaVine (23 for 50, for 46 percent) is in the top 20.
So far, though, the gaudy three-point shooting has shown up in its fullest force in three blowout victories. The Wolves have won by 16, 26 and 36 points in their three victories. They are a combined 38 for 70 from long distance in those games (54.3 percent).
They’ve taken a few lopsided losses, too. But they’re also 0-3 in games decided by four or fewer points. And they’re 1-6 in games where they give up at least 100 points.
Ah, yes, that leads us to the defense. It hasn’t been good. And here’s the thing: three-point defense hasn’t been the problem. Minnesota is allowing opponents to make just 8.4 three-pointers per game. That’s among the best in the NBA. Percentage-wise, opponents are around middle of the pack at 35.0 percent from long distance. The Wolves are winning that battle.
Where the Wolves are getting crushed is on those simple, old-fashioned two-point shots.
Minnesota’s opponents are shooting 52.9 percent from two-point range, which puts the Wolves dead last in the NBA in that category. Perimeter players are too often letting the guys they are guarding get easy looks. Their big men are getting exploited by bigger, bulkier and craftier opponents.
In short, the Wolves have been over the course of nine games one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA in large part because of three-pointers. They’ve been one of the least efficient defenses in large part because of two-pointers.
The Wolves’ three-point shooting figures to regress as the year goes on. That doesn’t mean they can’t be good at it, but Wiggins — even with all the work he put in this past offseason to improve his shot — won’t keep making 54.8 percent of his attempts.
To compensate — and to win close games period — they’ll have to finally buy what Thibodeau is selling on defense. We’ve known all along that would be a key to success. And we’re seeing that play out in the early part of the season.