The question had not yet been fully asked when Karl-Anthony Towns busted in with a response.
“Defense,” he said.
When it comes to Towns’ takeaway from the Wolves’ 1-4 preseason, what’s the most urgent focus the team must carry over from the practice facility to San Antonio for Wednesday’s regular-season opener?
Defense. Or, in the Wolves’ case, the lack thereof.
“Defense,” Towns said, again. “You can quote me on that all you want. If we play defense the way we’re supposed to, the way we play it here in practice, we should have no problems against most of the teams in the league.”
Fans have been wondering if the Wolves would play better defense ever since Tom Thibodeau was hired as president of basketball operations and head coach before the 2016-17 season.
So far it has been hit or miss. Thibodeau has talked a few times in recent days of the relatively good defense the starting five, when healthy, played last season. But the fact remains the Wolves were 25th out of 30 teams in defensive rating last season and 29th in opponent field-goal percentage.
With Jimmy Butler not in the lineup in the preseason, the numbers were just as ghastly. Minnesota finished the preseason 29th in opponent field-goal percentage, 26th in three-point-shooting defense and last in points allowed. Minnesota capped the preseason by allowing the Milwaukee Bucks to score 84 first-half points.
At least for now, Butler is back with the team. He’s expected to start Wednesday, with his conditioning determining his playing time. The team is better, especially defensively, when Butler plays.
“The biggest thing is the starters were ranked seventh [last season],” Thibodeau said. “So that’s pretty significant. And our bench was ranked 30th. So we knew we had to improve. And still have to improve. That’s the challenge.”
But the entire team suffered on defense during the preseason.
“Just overall, offensively, defensively, I just feel we didn’t, as a team, take the preseason as seriously as we should’ve,” said Anthony Tolliver, a veteran signed to help bolster the bench. “That’s all of our faults. We should have approached it a lot better and we didn’t. But we can’t control that now. All we can control is today, tomorrow and the future.”
Several players — including Tolliver and starting point guard Jeff Teague — have talked in recent days about wanting a different pick-and-roll defensive strategy in which defenders switch who they are guarding rather than try to get over or under the screen.
The Wolves switch less often than most teams, a style that can result in open three-pointers if not played with precision.
“Defensively we have to have more intensity and more of a sense of urgency,” Teague said. “I think we’re not really a team that’s really putting more pressure on the pick-and-roll.”
Whatever system the team plays, it has to be played better. To Thibodeau, the key is getting everyone on the same page, a process made more difficult by Butler’s late arrival to practices.
“We have to play with great intensity, all the time,” he said. “We can’t let up.”