Friday, it will be DeMarcus Cousins.
When the Timberwolves, riding their first winning streak of the season, play Sacramento on Friday at Target Center, Wolves big man Gorgui Dieng likely will be charged with covering Cousins, the Kings’ high-scoring center.
This is nothing new.
It is, generally, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau’s plan to have Dieng cover the opponent’s biggest big man threat wherever that player wants to work. Against New York, that meant chasing Kristaps Porzingis all over the court, including the perimeter. Or banging with one of the Lopez brothers or Marc Gasol in the post. Thibodeau likes to call Dieng a glue guy, someone who does the little things to help the team. One of the biggest “little” things he does is take on this assignment most nights.
“It’s one of his strengths,” Thibodeau said. “His ability to defend multiple positions. And [Karl-Anthony Towns] is getting to that point, as well. But, right now, we think that’s what’s best for our team.”
A sore spot all season, the Wolves team defense has improved while they won three of four games. Over those four games the Wolves have allowed an average of 99.3 points and 42.7 percent shooting. Compare that with season totals of 106.1 points (21st in the league) and 46.6 percent shooting (26th).
It’s an indication of a team starting to respond to a coach known for teaching defense. And that’s why Dieng all but dismissed the notion that his nightly challenge is anything special.
“It’s not me stopping one guy,” he said. “It’s the whole team.”
Yes, but giving Dieng that responsibility has a trickle-down effect.
With Towns asked to do so much on the offensive end, it takes a little way from his load at the other end. And, prodded a bit, Dieng admitted that he takes pride in his role.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We have a lot of that on this team. If he comes to me and thinks I can do that job, it makes me feel good about myself. It’s not an easy task.”
Dieng hasn’t always won the battle. In the first matchup between the Wolves and Kings, Cousins scored 29 points.
And, as Dieng admits, the always-vocal Thibodeau seems to be especially hard on him, given his role in the team’s defense. “I’ll be honest with you, he’s on me every night,” Dieng said. “But it’s nothing bad, I know. He just expects good things from me. I understand that. I took that hard early in the season, but I understand what he expects of me, and I’m really trying to play to that.”
Dieng has at times struggled with big post players down low. But he has a versatility that allows him to cover both stretch fours and pounding fives.
“He has great feet, he has good anticipation,” Thibodeau said. “I think he’s getting better with his team and individual defense. And he has the right mentality for it. He’s a defense-first guy. And, a lot of times, he’s giving up size. He’s small for a center, and he ends up banging with those guys quite a bit. But he’s good fronting the post. He’s a multiple-effort guy. Very good at pick-and-rolls. So he sort of anchors our defense right now.”
And while the 21-year-old trio of Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are putting up big point totals, Dieng has been quietly efficient, as well. He is averaging 10.4 points, 2.5 offensive rebounds and 8.0 total rebounds per game. He has become a threat with his corner three-pointer, and his midrange shot is reliable.
But it’s sticking to opponents’ big men that makes Dieng the Wolves’ glue guy.
“I watch a lot of film,” he said. “I go through the scouting report. I study strengths and weaknesses, try to take the strengths away. It’s hard. But it’s part of the job.”