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Wolves' defense improves as chemistry develops

Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters (11) is guarded by Minnesota Timberwolves forward Taj Gibson (67) in Miami last month. Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS—Look at the Timberwolves' defensive numbers in totality and you will not be impressed. The Wolves are 27th in defensive efficiency, allowing 108.2 points per 100 possessions. They're tied for 28th in points allowed in the paint (50.2 points a game) and 29th in fast break points allowed (15.2).

Opponents are shooting 49.5 percent against Minnesota, the highest number in the NBA — worst out of all 30 teams.

So, to sum it up: bad, awful, woeful and worst.

But more recent results suggest change is occurring. The Wolves have won five-straight games for the first time since 2009, and an improving defense has contributed to the cause. Minnesota has held its last three opponents to under 100 points. Going back to last Monday — a four-game stretch for the Wolves — Minnesota has the league's fifth-best defense, allowing just 99.3 points per 100 possessions.

What's the deal?

"I think it's not any one particular thing," Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. "It's something you have to do as a team, and you have to make the commitment to do it. I think from containing the ball, to getting back, to challenging shots, to finishing your defense, to communicating, I think all those things are important. How we trace the ball, where our hand-level is, all that stuff matters."

It was difficult to understand why the Wolves, who brought in highly-touted defenders such as Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson to execute Thibodeau's lauded defensive schemes, were struggling so mightily early. A lack of familiarity likely played a role. While a team's chemistry is often discussed when looking at offensive execution, it can be just as important, if not more, on the defensive end.

"We're just flying around on defense," Gibson said. "It's easy when everybody's getting adjusted."

Gibson said players are getting comfortable with their "switching partners" on the floor. Prior to the season, Thibodeau tells players which teammates will switch with one another on screens. It can change depending on matchups or schemes for a particular opponent, but usually, guys of similar size — like Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson — will switch who they're guarding on screens rather than one of them trying to chase his man around a screen. They're switching partners.

Gibson, with his quick feet and 6-foot-9 frame, will often switch any screen on the floor — something he said he has done throughout his career — because he's capable of guarding anyone.

Switching on pick and rolls gives opposing ball handlers less time and space to get off an open three-point shot. The Wolves are 11th in the league in three-point attempts allowed (27.1) and opponent's three-point percentage (35.1).

"I think there's situations in which you do want to do more switching to take the three out," Thibodeau said. "That's something that we thought a lot about, and we wanted to put into what we're doing."

Analytically speaking, threes, layups and free-throws are the most-efficient shots you can get, so offenses chase them. While the Wolves are giving up the second-most field goal attempts near the basket — not good — they're surrendering the second fewest free-throw attempts (18.4) and forcing opponents to take the seventh-most mid-range jumpers (17.9), one of the game's most inefficient shots. The latter two stats represent a winning formula.

As the Wolves' develop their chemistry, Thibodeau's schemes are proving to be more effective. Gibson said the Wolves are "getting a feel for each other, understanding and (having a) belief in the system." He said players are starting to learn what to do in different situations, talking more and gaining comfort.

"The good teams, the teams that are successful, the teams that want to go deep in the playoffs understand it's real important for the defensive side (to be successful)," Gibson said. "You can't win championships without defense, and it's good to have some camaraderie and understanding your teammates, but as time went on, you have to take the challenge."

Thibodeau said the Timberwolves have to finish their defensive possessions by closing out hard on shooters and grabbing defensive rebounds. They're doing the latter well, grabbing 83 percent of potential defensive rebounds over their last three games — the sixth-best mark in the league in that time.

The Wolves' recent defensive successes haven't exactly come against a murderer's row of offenses. New Orleans, Dallas and Charlotte aren't going to light up too many scoreboards. Minnesota should get a true understanding of where it is defensively on Wednesday night, when it travels to Oakland to take on defending champion Golden State, the league's top offensive unit.

Jamal Crawford said developing trust has been the biggest key to Minnesota's defensive improvement. No team can test that more than the Warriors and their abundance of weapons.

"Because they come at you in flurries," Crawford said. "They can go on a 15-0 run. ... You don't want to be the ones pointing fingers (at each other). I've seen teams do it and start doing things they don't do. You just have to stay with it and trust it."

"They have the ability of making tough shots even when it's defended well, so you can't get discouraged," Thibodeau said. "You just have to keep doing it over and over again."