No matter how much they talk about it, no matter how much interim coach Ryan Saunders has emphasized it in practices and shootarounds, defense continues to evade the Timberwolves. Or more accurately, opponents continue to evade the Wolves’ defense.
Such was the case again Sunday as the Thunder beat the Wolves 132-126 at a sold-out Target Center. When the Wolves needed stops to complete a comeback late in the game, they couldn’t get them and Oklahoma City scored on five of its last six possessions to seal the win.
This was hardly a unique sight to those who have followed the Wolves this season, especially the past few months, when injuries have ripped through the roster and forced young players into larger roles than expected.
It has all added up to the Wolves ranking 29th in defensive rating since the All-Star break, and that was before Sunday’s explosion.
There can be an intuitive quality to defense, knowing a teammate will have your back if you have to help another, and how those rotations move in a coordinated fashion to prevent open shots. But when you have to patch together a roster late in the season under a new coach without much practice time – that’s a recipe for defensive disaster.
“I’ll say I still expect more defensively,” interim coach Ryan Saunders said. “I expect not to give up 38 points in the first quarter. I’m not happy about that. But there is some truth and validity to what you’re saying … usually the better defensive teams are the ones who have been together for a little bit and who understand how to communicate with each other.”
Saunders pointed at the Thunder as an example of that, even though Oklahoma City has struggled down the stretch and the Wolves did manager to shoot 54 percent against it. Karl-Anthony Towns led the Wolves with 35 while Andrew Wiggins continued his strong play with 24. Russell Westbrook had a triple double (27 points, 10 rebounds, 15 assists) while Paul George added 27 points. Dennis Schroder came off the bench to score 21.
The Wolves had a 10-point lead in the third quarter that vanished, as the bench couldn’t hold the advantage early in the fourth when Oklahoma City regained the lead for good. Then the teams traded baskets down the stretch, which isn’t a good trade for the trailing team.
“It’s challenging but that’s not an excuse,” guard Tyus Jones said of injuries affecting defensive performance. “Defense, a lot of it is effort. A lot of it is energy, talking, but at the same time it throws a different wrinkle in there with how many injuries we’ve had this year and how many different guys, different lineups we’ve had. We just got to be more consistent because we’ve shown we can do it.”
There isn’t much time left this season to accomplish that with the last set of games coming Tuesday and Wednesday.
“It can affect it a little bit with different guys on the floor even though you know who you’re switching with … ” Wiggins said. “At the end of the day we’re all basketball players and the rotations are the same. There’s not really an excuse.”
But at least it will be over soon.
• Tyus Jones was the recipient of the Flip Saunders Legacy Award before Sunday’s game. Jones earned the award because of his work in community service. Jones received the award from Ryan and Debbie Saunders at center court as his teammates and fans clapped for him.
• The Wolves wore white and pink warm-up shirts with the initials “D.J.” on the back in honor of Jones’ mother Debbie, who is fighting breast cancer.