NEW ORLEANS – A little over a month ago, coach Chris Finch watched as the Hawks and Jazz torched the Timberwolves at Target Center from three-point range.
The Hawks and Jazz combined to hit 50 three-pointers in the span of two games. It was after those games Finch and his coaching staff decided their defense needed a little tweaking.
"We always knew we were going to have to have some change-ups and curveballs, but we went through that patch where we got absolutely lit up from three," Finch said. "It was at that point in time where we had to decide now's the time to start looking at some different looks."
The Wolves weren't content to let teams keep bombarding them from the outside, and that was evident the next time the Wolves played the Jazz two weeks later, when they sacrificed what Finch called "loud twos" in order to keep Utah from running away with the game from three.
Finch and his staff were able to make these changes along the perimeter because he said the Wolves had built such a solid foundation for what they wanted to do on that end of the floor. As the Wolves prepare to play their 41st game of the season on Tuesday, which will mark the halfway point for them, their defense has been the biggest surprise.
A team that for years struggled on that end of the floor had the eighth-most efficient defense in the league entering Monday, a dramatic turnaround from the hopelessness of the past few years.
"I'm proud of how our guys approach and play defense," Finch said. "I think our effort on most nights is very good. We make multiple efforts, we take the challenge. I'm very proud of that. I can't say enough about the work [assistants] Elston Turner, Kevin Hanson have done in laying the foundation for our defense."
The addition of Patrick Beverley helped with that, as has the emergence of Jarred Vanderbilt, and the Wolves are on the same page on defense for the first time in a while.
But two of the biggest improvements have been Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell, who have received their share of criticism for their defense. Russell has found a niche playing alongside Beverley and Vanderbilt that allows him to play sound off-ball defense and be one of the Wolves' main communicators. His defensive rating when he's on the floor remains among the best of any regular rotation player.
Towns has been playing more along the perimeter in helping the Wolves form a high wall on screens to prevent penetration while his teammates recover behind him. This primarily "low man" concept replaced the drop coverage Towns has been in the past few seasons. He has welcomed the opportunity to show he's more versatile on defense than just being someone who guards the rim.
"I'm very happy with the way I've been playing defense this year," Towns said. "Offensively it is what it is. We all know what that's going to be. I think a lot of people doubted my defense and I'm just here to shut the haters up, and I think I'm going a good job of that."
Finch said Towns has been playing "great" defense for the Wolves all season and lauded his ability to rebound despite being away from the basket more often. His rebounding numbers have taken a slight dip to 9.3 per game, the lowest in his career, but that's not a cause for concern. He's helping the defense overall, Finch said, and the Wolves (20-20, eighth in the Western Conference) are where they are in part because of Towns' commitment to the scheme.
"He's still able to rebound from his coverage, which not every big can do that," Finch said. "His foul rate is down. Most of the fouls he gets are on the other end of the floor, so I've been really pleased with him and I think he feels pretty comfortable with what we're doing."