Dec. 9—What was viewed as the Timberwolves' unquestioned strength through the first quarter of the season has shown some serious cracks in the past week.
Minnesota's defense has not held up well against a number of the NBA's top offenses.
It was Utah's turn to pick apart Minnesota's defense — previously exposed by Washington and Atlanta — and the Jazz did just that in their 136-104 victory Wednesday night at Target Center.
"We've lost our competitiveness on the ball. Our ability to get into the ball, direct the ball. That was one of the things we were doing well for the bulk of this season," Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. "We talked about how defense starts with our ball pressure. It didn't matter what coverage we were in. We died on screens. We didn't get up to contest. We let guys just shoot the ball in our face. We didn't compete on the ball. That was really an easy night. That's a little bit concerning to me because that's some carryover from the Atlanta game when they just kind of laced it up and shot it right in our eye."
Utah's shot selection consisted almost entirely of layups and 3-pointers. Minnesota continues to give up the latter at a high rate to the NBA's top sniping teams. The Jazz (17-7) went 25 for 54 from deep, which marked the second straight game in which the Wolves gave up 25 made triples.
The Jazz hit 25 of their 34 two-point attempts, which is what happens when all of those attempts are within three feet.
A week of games against the league's top offenses suggests the Wolves' once-impressive defense appears to be much closer to average than good.
"We hurt ourselves in a lot of situations," Wolves wing Taurean Prince said. "If we just do what we're supposed to do and execute the actual game plan in stead of trying to worry about switching stuff up, doing anything different, if we do what we're supposed to do at a high level, it's brought us success when we do it. We just got to continue to be as consistent as possible."
If the Wolves are to compete with playoff teams — of which they'll face many over the remainder of the month — the offense may need to find its way. It has yet to do so all season.
Minnesota (11-14) has struggled to find any rhythm or flow. Karl-Anthony Towns took just two shots in the first half as Utah deployed the look Minnesota sees every game: A smaller player guards Towns in the post while the opposing center roams the paint.
For the second straight game, the Wolves shot well below 50 percent in the paint. That's only further damaging their defensive cause, as missed layups are essentially turnovers in the NBA that lead to transition opportunities the other way.
"We lost the game in the first few minutes when we missed four layups and turned it over once. Those empty possessions put 10 points in the game," Finch said. "Big-boy basketball. We're not finishing like big boys finish around the rim. We're going in there finishing soft and we got to be better finishing. Take the hits, get the ball to the glass and make the easy baskets that were easy opportunities that we're generating. It's that to me. We just got to finish through contact with strength."
In the first half, Patrick Beverley and Anthony Edwards carried the Wolves' offensive load, combining for 29 points. Beverley's return from a groin injury provided a needed spark.
"He looked really good. Really, really good," Finch said. "Pushed the pace, set the tone, played off the catch, got to the heart of the defense, took Gobert on early. We just needed more guys to play like that, and they didn't."
Utah scored 41 points in the fourth quarter. Donovan Mitchell finished with 36 points.
The Wolves were again without D'Angelo Russell, who missed his second-straight contest with a sprained ankle. But their issues extend beyond his absence at this point. Another good team in Cleveland comes to Target Center on Friday.
"We've played against Philly, we've played against Miami, we've played against other really good teams and have beat them," Finch said. "Tonight, we let our head get down when we missed shots and missed layups, and then they were making threes and we just kind of let go of the rope a little bit. That's a little bit of a concern. We're always learning as a young team, but I don't think it's like we feel like 'Oh wow, we can't step up a weight class.' We've been way more competitive than this."