Last weekend, Minnesota Timberwolves combo guard Patrick Beverley and I found ourselves waiting for the same elevator after the team’s shootaround practice at The Courts at Mayo Clinic Square. I repeated an exchange I’d just had with the Wolves head coach less than 20 minutes earlier. “I just asked [Chris] Finch whether he was worried about wearing you out, and he told me he was more worried about you wearing him out.”
“That’s my guy,” PatBev replied, turning on the high beams of his smile.
“Yeah, but he just played you more than 62 minutes over the course of a back-to-back,” I protested.
PatBev leaned against the back wall of the newly arrived elevator and said sheepishly, “You do what you gotta do.”
That night, the Wolves obliterated the Memphis Grizzlies, 138-95, for the team’s third straight win. PatBev began the scoring by successfully jousting with three taller Grizzlies for an offensive rebound and banking in a put-back. Less than two minutes later, he used space from a screen by Jarred Vanderbilt off a high pick-and-roll to splash a three-pointer. A minute after that, he drove into traffic, missed an 11-foot floater, but raced in and tore the rebound out of the hands of Memphis’ Desmond Bane, setting up the circumstance where he found himself being guarded closely in the corner. He again drove hard into traffic and missed the bank shot from 9-feet out. But as PatBev drew defenders with his aggression, the lane was open for Vanderbilt to swoop in and catch the carom in stride for an emphatic slam dunk.
“Patrick was busy on the offensive glass early,” Finch said after the game. “He is probably one of the best offensive rebounding point guards who has ever played the game. So when he is doing that, that’s just another weapon out there.”
Before he sat down from his first stint in the game, with 3:09 remaining in the opening period, PatBev had also snatched the ball from spinning Grizzlies big man Jaren Jackson Jr., igniting a fast break that led to an Anthony Edwards three-pointer; fed Ant for another trey on the Wolves next possession; and chased down Grizzlies star point guard Ja Morant from behind for a blocked shot.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the sustained purpose in his performance and his personality has transformed the too-often lethargic and beaten-down culture of this franchise into something opponents have been ambushed into reckoning with when they step on the court.
Meet the Lunch Bucket 2
As PatBev established himself as the tone-setter in chief, Vanderbilt stepped forward as his eager lieutenant. Together their unremitting hustle and pugnacious physicality have inspired the dormant defensive instincts and confidence of the Wolves’ “Big 3” point-hunting predators, Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell; even as the profound offensive talents of that trio can exploit the sweat equity of the “Lunch Bucket 2” for maximum efficiency.
Coming into the 2021-22 season, the question was which two players could best supplement and balance the lopsided skill sets of the Big 3. After experimenting with Jaden McDaniels and Josh Okogie in the starting lineup, the Wolves have their answer. Heading into Wednesday night’s home matchup with the Miami Heat, the Wolves are surfing a dominant four-game winning streak with the most effective starting lineup thus far this season in the NBA.
Among lineups that have logged more than 80 minutes together, the quintet of PatBev, Vando, Ant, KAT and DLo have established their own tier of excellence. They are scoring 134.3 points per 100 possessions, the best of any five-player unit. They are allowing 83.5 points per 100 possessions, which is also the best of any of their rivals. Their net rating — points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions — is 50.8. The next best quintet, from the Atlanta Hawks, has a net rating of 28.2.
These freakish statistics are not sustainable, of course. The sample size is small, the opposition has been relatively weak, injuries have been scant and the luck factor on somewhat random variables (such as the opponents’ three-point shooting accuracy) has been charmed. Nobody should believe that the Wolves have found a formula where their starters are capable of thrashing their foes by an average of nearly 51 points per game, which is the approximate length of 200 possessions split evenly among offense and defense.
Granted, then, the Wolves starting five is probably not a juggernaut. But they do evince signs of being a formidable crew featuring a highly enjoyable, idiosyncratic blend of snarl and shine, beauty and bruises, floor burns and flowing buckets. PatBev and Vando have added a fiery dimension to the finesse of KAT and DLo, broadened the swagger of Ant to include both ends of the court, and taught Wolves fans that flying objects on their screens may be closer than they initially appear to the team’s opponents. Or, put more simply, the Wolves have finally started engaging in the hard part of winning basketball games.
Morphing into more complete competitors
After dismantling Memphis, the Wolves traveled to New Orleans to face the Pelicans. In their previous meeting, KAT had allowed the officials to corrode his composure, and channeled his frustration into a doomed measurement of his fortitude while banging bodies with Jonas Valanciunas, a massive Lithuanian whose game thrives on contact. JV scored 22, rebounded 23, and the Pels walked off with their first win of the season.
But that game also sported a starting lineup which included McDaniels and Okogie. While PatBev performed well off the bench, Vando wasted 9 minutes of playing time gathering nothing but a foul and a turnover while his team was outscored by 16 points.
The rematch last Monday night demonstrated how much the revamped rotations have helped a roster once comprised almost exclusively of one-way players morph into more assured and complete competitors.
In his signature matchup with Valanciunas, KAT immediately flexed his newfound discipline and maturity, using JV’s bulk and absence of quickness against him. He drew the foul taking a pick-and-roll pass from DLo and going hard to the rim for a dunk attempt. He sped right toward JV on another feed from DLo, Euro-stepped a few feet closer then suddenly floated a 6-foot hook into the hoop before drawing contact. He took JV out to the three-point arc, up-faked a shot, and left him the dust for a slam dunk. He faced JV on the left block and went hard to his left, but slipped under JV’s outstretched arm for another driving layup. That’s eight points within the game’s first four minutes, all on aggressive but shrewd drives to the bucket.
When New Orleans spread the floor, the starting unit showcased rugged, cohesive hustle. Josh Hart was open for a moment in the corner before Ant tore over there for a hard contest. Hart sidestepped his momentum and headed for the hoop, only to be cut off by Vando. A pass to Ingram brought a contest from DLo, and a quick side-dish to Garrett Temple. PatBev charged in for the closeout, but suddenly changed direction when he saw Temple goosing the rapid ball movement with pass to the opposite corner, leaping for the steal, gathering himself with a dribble and then lofting a pass to a streaking Vando, who slammed it home while being fouled. Then Vando and PatBev started to cook.
On the next possession, PatBev and KAT trapped a Pelican on the perimeter, prompting a bailout pass to the top of the key. The dribbler scanned the floor, saw Vando playing center field between the slot man and a shooter in the corner, faked to one and dished to the other. Vando read his eyes and picked it off. A few minutes later, when Hart drew defenders out from the paint and threaded a bounce pass to Herb Jones near the rim, PatBev scrambled down from the weak side and blocked the shot. Vando got the rebound, fed up the floor to Ant, who missed the shot. But KAT tipped the ball out to Beverley who fed a driving Vando, prompting a foul.
You get the gist. The constant activity and focus from PatBev and Vando has spread throughout the roster. For the starting lineup, this has dramatically elevated the offense as well as the defense. Guts, brain cells and vocal chords are vital elements in PatBev’s bag of tricks. Just as he can body-up much larger opponents during on-ball defense, he can set a mean back-screen that frees up perimeter shooters like Ant and DLo. A student of the game, he knows opposing tendencies, if not entire playbooks, and secures many of his blocks, boards, drawn charging fouls and pass-or-shot decisions by correctly anticipating where the momentum of the play is headed. When advantageous to his teammates without tipping off opponents, he speaks these thoughts in near constant communication, and isn’t afraid to verbally hold a teammate accountable after a play either.
Vando plays like a maniac but has also become better at absorbing information. As the season has progressed, he’s increasingly adept at turning the final stage of his kamikaze quest for an offensive rebound into an in-rhythm pass to a teammate, who have started to anticipate this. It is easier to set up an open corner trey (one of the most desirable shots in basketball) as a big man under the hoop than as a point guard on the perimeter, once the hard part of getting the offensive rebound has been achieved. After the Memphis game, Finch cited Vando’s rebound and dish to Ant for a corner three as both a vital and emblematic point of the game.
These complementary skill sets are why “defensive”-oriented players like PatBev and Vando are quietly fueling the Wolves offense. The Wolves have their highest offensive rating when PatBev is on the court, and Vando ranks fourth in that category, behind KAT and Ant.
Where is DLo, you ask? Fifth-best in boosting the Wolves’ offensive rating but a surprising second, behind only Okogie, in bolstering the team’s defensive prowess. Sure, some of that is noise — he’s not the equal of PatBev, Vando or McDaniels as a defender — but the trend and bonus effectiveness are legit. DLo has listened to PatBev talk about what is coming out on the court, and, no slouch as a student of the game himself, has begun to emulate him. Quite frankly, he also seems to give a damn about getting stops, using his long wingspan for deflections and to discourage passes, and taking fewer plays off, especially on rotations to deter penetration and when closing out perimeter shooters.
DLo has the best net rating on the team, meaning the Wolves are most advantaged when he is on the court. A major cause of this phenomenon is his stellar leadership of the second unit, a process that began to crystallize when he was returning from injury last season and came off the bench to help out with his minutes restriction while fully healing. But the Wolves defense was rotten last season, and nobody noticed or much cared that DLo was part of the sieve.
At the beginning of the season, you cringed at the notion of DLo and Beasley sharing the backcourt; the prospect of twin turnstiles on defense seemed like a suicide wish for the team’s playoff hopes. But now that DLo has become the poster child for defensive improvement, the second unit can get away with him paired with Beasley, even as he works his magic spreading shots, retaining pace and generating a variety of good looks for himself and his teammates on offense. It doesn’t hurt that Jaden McDaniels is scoring more and fouling less since coming off the bench and playing more frequently at his natural position of small forward.
‘Finally figuring it out’ on offense?
The most remarkable thing about this 2021-22 Wolves season thus far is how reliably the team’s defense has shored up an offense that has sputtered with surprising inefficiency. Over the course of this four-game winning streak, it has been a boon and a relief to see a roster that boasts the likes of KAT, DLo and Ant finally getting untracked at that end of the court.
After demolishing Memphis, Finch said that “Ant, KAT and DLo are really figuring it out. It starts with a willingness to move the ball early and keep it moving.” But then he pointedly noted that “The defense has really set the tone. When you guard like that, it gives you confidence to play with a little bit more freedom on offense. There’s not so much pressure on every shot.”
The schedule toughens, beginning with the arrival of Jimmy Butler and the Heat on Wednesday night. Sooner or later, the Wolves will receive their share of the welter of injuries that have siphoned coherence and continuity from most of the other NBA teams. And despite this winning streak, and the right combination of players now ingrained in the starting lineup, they are below .500 and in tenth place in the 15-team Western Conference. Yes, that would make them a play-in team for the playoffs, a step up from last season.
But with 65 games to go, this rebuilding team in a pivotal season needs to keep fostering their intangibles and let the won-lost record sort itself out. That the Minnesota Timberwolves are justifiably taking pride in an undersized defense that effectively hounds opponents with hustle and generates more mistakes than it commits is cause to rejoice, and, increasingly, to believe.
Seventeen games into the season, the Wolves rank first in loose balls recovered, first in points generated from turnovers, first in second-chance points, second in deflections, third in blocks and in charges drawn, fourth in steals, and 13th in contested shots. They are seventh in fewest points allowed per possession.
Let it sink in, and enjoy the novelty, the quickening of a team on the rise.