The Wolves should have beaten Memphis in the season opener. It was the first of 12 losses in games they've led by at least 10 points. But the worm might be turning for the youngest team in the NBA – and Tom Thibodeau's defensive reputation is finally showing up.
According to Wolves radio announcer Alan Horton, Minnesota's defensive rating has improved dramatically since the start of the season. Over the last 15 games, they rank fifth, compared to 27th over the first 24 games. Defensive rating simply explains how many points a team allows per 100 possessions. At 104.6 over the last 15 games, Minnesota is essentially defending like the Warriors, who lead the league in defensive rating, have all season (104.5).
A casual fan will ask why the improved defense hasn't resulted in more wins (Wolves are 7-8 in the last 15 games). The answer is simple: the defense hasn't held firm for a full 48 minutes.
"There's been a lot of positives except we haven't finished games well," Thibodeau said before playing the Rockets Wednesday, via Wolves Radio. "We've had big leads and we haven't been able to hold on. Continuing to build for 48 minutes is probably the biggest thing."
Of their eight losses since Dec. 13, seven of them have come in dramatic fashion.
- Blew a 12-point lead with 2:22 to play against Houston
- Blew a 7-point fourth-quarter lead in a loss to Sacramento
- Blew a 13-point lead then trailed by 10, came back to retake the lead only to lose to Denver
- Blew a 12-point halftime lead in a home loss to Portland
- Rallied from 26 down to tie it late, only to lose in the last second to Philadelphia
- Rallied from 14 down to tie it in the fourth quarter, only to lose to the Wizards
- Blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead and lost at home to Utah
Five the seven should have been surefire victories. Had they won those five they would be sitting comfortably with a 18-21 record and likely in control of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Instead, they're 13-26, four games out of the playoffs with five teams ahead of them.
"We've basically been a top 10 team offensively," said Thibodeau. "It's the defense and playing the 48 minutes - and I think our defense is starting to come around a little bit, too."
Thibodeau's defense is allowing 98.3 points over the last nine games, more than 6 points better than their season average (104.5).
The last two games – both wins – might be what the Wolves needed. They took double-digit leads and, despite making things interesting, held on to win both. A third straight win would be somewhat monumental considering it would come against Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Westbrook has killed the Wolves with 58 points, 23 rebounds and 13 assists in two games, both dominating wins by the Thunder.
"We're still not where we want to be, but I think we're at 15 now - in points allowed - and that's a big step," Thibodeau added. "The rebounding has been corrected. Defensive transition has improved. Three-point field goals made has improved ... so we're moving in the right direction. You can see conceptually we have an understanding. We're still not finishing all the time the way we need to, but in terms of fulfilling responsibilities as a team, it has improved."
If the last two wins are examples of what the Wolves are becoming, now is the time they can really start to showcase their ability – and stay in contention for a playoff spot.
After OKC on Friday, the Wolves play two in Texas against the Mavericks and Spurs on Sunday and Tuesday. Then they're in LA. to play the Clippers before things get easier with games against the Nuggets, Suns, Pacers, Nets and Magic.