For extended minutes in their 111-101 victory over the Pistons on Wednesday, the Timberwolves employed a 2-3 zone defense.
Wolves coach Ryan Saunders was asked after the game if he liked or didn't like the fact that he resorted to a zone defense throughout the game and his answer, with a smile, was "Yes."
Guard Ricky Rubio offered a longer and more sobering take.
"When you go to play zone defense, it's because your defense is not working," Rubio said. "So we've got to be smarter with that and know that we didn't do our job playing man-to-man."
However, after a little prodding, Saunders admitted the zone was "something I've always liked."
"You have to pick and choose" when to use it, Saunders said.
He chose the right moments Wednesday, especially in the fourth quarter. Pistons point guard Killian Hayes appeared flummoxed and turned the ball over on consecutive possessions, leading to a pair of easy transition buckets for the Wolves and a 95-95 tie with 5 minutes, 21 seconds to play.
The zone helped the Wolves hold the Pistons to 16 points in the final 12 minutes.
"Holding a team to 16 points in the fourth quarter is no easy feat," Saunders said. "They're a really well-coached team. They've got a number of pieces that can get it going, so I was proud of our guys' communication, liked what they were able to do, figuring things out within some of our different defensive schemes."
Rubio said the Wolves started practicing the zone more following their final preseason game in Dallas. After the Mavericks employed a zone against them, the Wolves trotted it out in practice so the offense could get some work against a zone. It turns out they played it pretty well.
"We basically did to practice our offense, but it worked for our defense, too," Rubio said.
But even though Rubio said switching to zone isn't always the best look for a team, he was happy with the way the Wolves adjusted on the fly. Switching to the zone wasn't even in the original game plan.
"We've got to get proud of how we execute, change the game plan and go to zone, which we didn't even talk about before coming into the game," Rubio said.
Center Karl-Anthony Towns said late in the game, associate head coach David Vanterpool — the de facto defensive coordinator — pulled the team aside, telling them to get tougher and shut down the Pistons.
"[He] pulled us all together when we were talking to each other and said, 'It's time to grow up. We've got to get this win,' " Towns said. "It started off where it always needs to start off, on the defensive end."
Both Saunders and President Gersson Rosas have spoken in recent days about the expectation of "growing pains" for the young Wolves. That's especially true on defense, where the needs for chemistry to develop can show up in embarrassing ways, such as easy baskets for an opponent. There were plenty of those for Detroit. The zone at least took the Pistons out of rhythm.
"I don't want to rush to say anything that hey, we're a finished product on the defensive or offensive end," Saunders said. "Creativity was a word we used a lot in our staff meetings throughout these last eight months and [we were] really diving into different zones."
The Wolves were able to come back, but as they enter a tough three-game road trip against Utah, the Lakers and Clippers, they're about to find out just where they stand.
A zone defense won't take these teams by surprise now that the Wolves have put it on film.