It was just five days ago that I entered this space and told you all about how the Timberwolves’ defense was improving. It was true, of course — their defensive rating improved five points from the first 24 games to the second 24 and become good enough to win games on a consistent basis. After starting 6-18, the Wolves were 13-11 in the next 24. The offense improved slightly. The defense improved significantly. There was no denying which was responsible for the improvement.
The danger of isolating numbers like that and declaring you’ve found a trend, of course, is that you are just as likely to watch things regress to the mean.
Exhibits A, B, C and D: the last four Timberwolves games, when their defense has been truly awful — bad enough to incur the public wrath of coach Tom Thibodeau, who for all his sideline barking this season has tended to protect his players with his comments.
Not Monday after a 115-113 loss to the Heat.
“Our best players have to lead,” Thibodeau said. “They can’t be one-sided players. This isn’t football, where there’s an offense and a defense. You have to play both sides of the ball to play it well. You have to play it unselfishly, you have to play it together and you have to have the discipline to do it over and over again. And so until we figure that out, it’s going to be hard to move forward.”
In terms of defensive rating — an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions — the Wolves have played four of their worst defensive games of the season in the past four contests. Not surprisingly, they’ve all been losses. I’m sure Thibodeau has explained things in similar terms to his players, but the numbers are striking:
*The Wolves are 0-20 this season when their defensive rating is 116.1 or higher. The higher the number the worse the defense, by the way. To repeat: they have not won a single game this season in their 20 worst defensive efforts. Their defensive rating has been above 120 each of the past four games, which is particularly bad.
*The Wolves are 14-6 this season when their defensive rating is lower than 110.
*The Wolves have a losing record (14-15) in their 29 best offensive games this season — games in which their offensive rating is better than 110. But they’ve still managed to win five games when their offensive rating dips below 110.
So yes, Thibodeau is correct when he asserts that the Wolves are scoring plenty of points but will need to tighten up their defense consistently if they are going to win.
Oh, and if you thought defense was just a Zach LaVine problem — a popular theory after the Wolves posted strong back-to-back defensive efforts minus LaVine in January in victories over Houston and Oklahoma City — it should be noted the last two full losses have come since LaVine was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Lately, it’s been a problem running top to bottom on the roster. If anyone thought the defense was fixed, let the last week serve as an unpleasant reminder that it most certainly is not.