You could see the disgust on Rick Adelman's face and hear it in his voice.

The veteran coach kicked off his first training camp as the Timberwolves leader with a general overview of his new team. He began by sharing his honest opinion on how his players treated defense last season.

"It's horrendous the way they approach it," he said.

Adelman left little doubt that his team's defensive deficiencies must change under his watch. So far, the statistics reflect an improvement that deserves mention among reasons for the Wolves surprising turnaround, their 17-17 record and a percolating optimism that the playoffs don't sound so far-fetched as the second half of the season begins Tuesday night in Los Angeles.

The Wolves are relevant again primarily because of Ricky Rubio's playmaking and unselfishness, Kevin Love's continued ascension, Nikola Pekovic's toughness and Adelman's mastery. And they're not horrendous on defense any more, which gets lost amid the other positive developments happening with this team.

The Wolves rank tied for 17th in the NBA in points allowed at 95.6; They finished dead last in this category last season, allowing opponents to average 107.7 points per game. That's 12.1 fewer points per game, which would represent the sixth-best improvement of any team in the shot clock era.

The contrast in their fourth-quarter defense is particularly notable: A year ago, the Wolves ranked 30th (last) in points allowed, 30th in field-goal percentage defense and 29th in overall defensive rating. This season in the fourth quarter they rank 10th in points allowed, fifth in field-goal percentage and third in defensive rating.

Granted, the sample size is still relatively small and the Wolves still have their defensive flaws and limitations. They don't have a true shutdown defender, Luke Ridnour is an undersized shooting guard and they lack an imposing shot blocker in the starting lineup. And, it should be noted, scoring is down league-wide because the condensed schedule has left players more fatigued and overall play more ragged.

But signs of progress are undeniable, particularly in terms of overall effort, which is half the battle on that end of the court.

"It's all about focus and guys buying in and being 100 percent on board to getting the job done," forward Anthony Tolliver said. "Everybody knows that if you don't do the right thing, you're not going to be able to play."

That's called accountability, a big word that was in short supply in recent years. So much was made during the coaching search about David Kahn's desire to find someone who espouses fast, up-tempo basketball. In reality, it was equally important that they found a coach who could teach this young team how to play defense. Fast-paced basketball is fun -- especially with Rubio running the show -- but if you give up 107 points and lose, what's the point?

"They were last in the league in so many categories, so it was easy to get their attention," Adelman said recently.

Rubio's arrival has made a difference. Everyone knew about the rookie's flashy offensive skills, but his defensive capabilities were largely unknown. He's quietly become effective in that area, too. Rubio's length and instincts are disruptive for ballhandlers -- he's second in the NBA in steals -- and he's good enough positionally that teammates aren't constantly forced to provide help.

Other improvements seem more obvious to the naked eye. Guys are playing harder on defense. They have more focus. They close out on shooters better. They're helping each other more.

That's effort, not talent. They also have a coach and defensive scheme they believe in.

"The biggest difference between this year and last year is just the extra effort," Tolliver said. "It's all things that we've known and played our whole entire lives. There's really not too many different ways you can play defense."

It just requires a commitment to doing it. And a coach who demands it and enforces it.

Their defensive acumen and toughness will get tested in a major way as they return to work with three road games in three days against the Clippers, Lakers and Suns. So much for easing back into things. The story lines will remain the same: Rubio's passing, Love's rebounding and scoring, Pek's power in the post and Adelman's craftiness in pulling the strings. Whether this team actually contends for a playoff spot will hinge on what happens on defense, too.

At least Wolves fans don't have to cover their eyes when the ball is at that end of the court anymore.

Chip Scoggins •