PORTLAND, ORE. – It can be a maddening exercise to try and find the good in a 10-game losing streak, but that’s the Timberwolves and coach Ryan Saunders have tried to do of late.
They have no choice but to do that.
Along those lines, they have seen a glimmer of hope in their last few games after falling to Portland 113-106 on Saturday night, and that glimmer has come on the defensive end of the floor.
At the beginning of this streak, the defense was awful. For a six-game stretch – games two through seven of the losing streak – the Wolves had the worst defensive rating in the NBA at 126.1 points per 100 possessions. Over their last three games, the Wolves are 15th at 108.2. It’s not great, but it seems like an ocean of improvement from where they were.
“We’re just starting to buy in more,” guard Shabazz Napier said. “[Assistant] coach [David] Vanterpool, who’s basically our defensive specialist, he executes our plays and he basically tells us what to do defensively and we just buy into the scheme.”
Forward Robert Covington said the Wolves are paying more attention to detail than they were previously.
“Overall we’ve made great strides and we’re getting back to the way we’ve been playing,” Covington said. “That’s a good thing to see. Now it’s just sustaining it for long periods of time.”
The Wolves held Portland to 43% shooting. Damian Lillard had 29 points but needed 25 shots to get there. C.J. McCollum had 26 points, but needed 23 shots to reach that.
“The defense is definitely better,” Saunders said. “We’ve done a number of things that I wanted our guys to do … so that’s progress.”
Whitside’s big night
Karl-Anthony Towns’ absence has meant the Wolves’ offense hasn’t been able to stretch the floor as much as it like. Towns’ proficient three-point shooting can free up driving lanes for everyone else because opposing centers have to respect his shooting ability.
But on Saturday, Hassan Whiteside was able to park himself near the paint and disrupt a lot of drives – to the tune of seven blocked shots. Whiteside wasn’t shy about his game afterward.
“I feel like I’m the best rim protector in the league,” Whiteside said.
Perhaps no stat line illustrated Whiteside’s effectiveness than Gorgui Dieng’s. Dieng had 15 points on 3 of 12 shooting. He was 3 of 7 from three-point range, 0-for-5 from inside the arc. Whiteside, when he’s engaged, can disrupt timing of shots at the rim as well as anyone in the league, and he certainly was in tune Saturday.