VCF Sports >Football World >Once again, Timberwolves tasked with slowing the NBA's greatest scorers

Once again, Timberwolves tasked with slowing the NBA's greatest scorers

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With the Mavericks awaiting the Timberwolves in the Western Conference Finals, Minnesota's defense will be truly challenged.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Whenever discussions in the past about the Minnesota Timberwolves involved a historical nature, that talk usually ended with a laugh or a wince. Or both.

Like a 13-year playoff dry spell, the NBA’s third-longest, which ended in 2018.

And a total number of All-NBA First Team players — one, Kevin Garnett, spread over 35 years.

And so on. Rather than go down that list, because this franchise has suddenly taken a hard pivot in the opposite direction, here’s another way the Wolves are reaching for history:

Best defensive team ever?

Better than the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen-Dennis Rodman Bulls? The Bad Boy Pistons? A few others worthy of mention?

As the Wolves prepare for the Western Conference Finals for just the second time ever — yet another one of those grim historical tidbits — that conversation must begin. Because they are that good.

With all due respect to everyone’s favorite superstar-in-waiting, Anthony Edwards, defense is the main reason they’ve made it this far and are suddenly in the championship mix.

“It’s what we do best,” Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels said. “That’s not a secret at this point.”

Minnesota had the No. 1 defense during the regular season, and although it seems mathematically impossible, the Wolves have gone next level in the postseason.

Here’s what they’ve done:

In the first round, they saw Kevin Durant (the No. 8 all-time scoring leade still in his prime) and Devin Booker (a certified shot-maker from midrange and deep) … and swept them. The Suns were top 10 in scoring this season but failed to crack 100 points in two of the four games.In the conference semifinals, they saw three-time Kia MVP Nikola Jokic, a pick-and-roll maestro in Jamal Murray and one of the game’s best 3-point shooters in Michael Porter Jr. … and held them to less than 100 in all four wins.

This is a team with a four-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert, a ball hawk in McDaniels, a better-than-you-thought interior defender in Karl-Anthony Towns, along with Mike Conley and Naz Reid. The Wolves are big, athletic and quick.

But it really goes even deeper. The Wolves’ defensive strategy is constantly updated. They often use the full-court press, which is nearly unheard of at this level. Mostly, the Wolves know the other team’s weaknesses and find ways to exploit them.

“We constantly put it on our defense to meet the challenge, whatever it might be,” Conley said.

And now they’ll see two of the toughest checks in the game in Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic, a pair of clever and creative guards who make plays and win games and aren’t afraid of the moment.

If the Wolves’ defense gets the better of the Mavericks, and then whoever emerges from the East, this would be a defensive run to remember. (The Pacers and Celtics were the top two scoring teams in the conference this season.)

But back to the question: Of all time?

That’s where it gets tricky.

It’s tough to compare eras. The game was different 10, 20, 30 years ago. Hand-checking was allowed, centers were dominant, the court was cramped, the 3-pointer wasn’t emphasized and the pace of play was snail-ish. The physical nature of the game then favored defense much more than now.

Anyway, here are past champions defined by defense:


The 1988-89 and 1989-90 Detroit Pistons

These teams introduced tough, WWE-type defense that would eventually be copied by others, such as the Pat Riley-era Knicks. The Pistons took delight in irritating and intimidating opponents, who thought twice — and looked both ways — before going for layups.

The main defenders: Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, John Salley and Isiah Thomas.

Laimbeer and Mahorn led with hip checks, elbows and rumps and put bodies on the floor. Rodman and Salley were athletic wings who trapped and pestered scorers and were terrific in transition after steals and blocks.

Dumars was one of the better defensive guards of his era, the front line of protection against Jordan. Pistons coach Chuck Daly made him the point man in the “Jordan Rules” defensive blueprint. Meanwhile, Thomas was a two-way Hall of Famer, quick with the hands for steals.

The result: The ’89 Pistons didn’t allow 100 points in any playoff game until the NBA Finals as the Lakers managed that twice while being swept. In 1990, the Pistons won a conference final Game 7 against Jordan by holding the Bulls to 76 points, then the Blazers to 90 in the elimination game of the NBA Finals.


The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls

All of the six championship Jordan Bulls teams were top shelf defensively. This group stood out because it was Rodman’s first year with the club when he was still in his prime before age stole his skills.

The main defenders: Rodman, Jordan, Pippen and Ron Harper.

Jordan and Pippen were perhaps the two greatest defensive wing teammates ever. They were opportunistic with sharp anticipatory senses, cutting off passing lanes and snatching loose balls. Jordan was a former Defensive Player of the Year, Pippen finished second in the voting in ‘96 and together, they made 17 All-Defense first teams.

However, Rodman took the toughest defensive assignments, often guarding multiple positions and was exclusively assigned to shut down Karl Malone in two NBA Finals (1997 and ’98). Harper was a ball hawk who excelled in traps and double teams.

The result: Regarded as one of the greatest teams in history — the Bulls won a then-record 72 regular-season games and lost only three postseason games (two of which were in the Finals after going up 3-0 on Seattle). Jordan, Pippen and Rodman were all First Team All-Defense in 1995-96.

The Heat averaged less than 85 points in the first round, the Knicks less than 90 in the second round, the Magic scored 67 in one game of the conference finals and the Sonics managed just 75 in the NBA Finals elimination game.


The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons

In a throwback to previous Pistons championship-winning teams, the 2004 squad was built — ironically by Dumars, then the general manager — to lock up the opposition.

The main defenders: Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Chauncey Billups.

Ben Wallace is on the Mount Rushmore for defense. He defined the position during the 2000s when he earned four Defensive Player of the Year awards, tying Dikembe Mutombo and Rudy Gobert for most ever. He made four All-Star teams … and couldn’t shoot.

The season turned when the Pistons swung a trade for Rasheed Wallace in February, who bought into coach Larry Brown’s philosophy and became a key fit.

Prince was the athletic wing who guarded multiple positions. His chase-down block of Reggie Miller in the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals remains in the how-to-play-defense video vault. Billups brought size to the point guard position and made a pair of All-Defensive teams.

The result: The ’04 Pistons set several notable defensive playoff records in the shot clock era by allowing under 90 points in 18 playoff games and 65 or less in three. They also allowed under 40% shooting in 12 games and the fewest points per game (80.7) in a shot-clock-era playoff run of any length.


That’s what the 2024 Wolves are up against. Next for them in these playoffs are the Dallas Mavericks, the No. 7 scoring team this season. The Mavs were refreshed by a mid-season trade for Daniel Gafford and PJ Washington, giving them size and desperately needed scoring in the paint.

Of course, Doncic and Irving are the difference-makers, tag-team guards who are tricky with the dribble and comfortable shooting from anywhere on the floor.

It’s another challenge for the Wolves … but Minnesota’s defense is on a historical mission.

* * *

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.

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