Film: How can the Wolves get back to high-level transition defense?
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Over the past two games, the Minnesota Timberwolves have wasted various opportunities to pick up a couple of victories over the Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers for a very simple reason: they aren't getting back on defense.
The Wolves currently play at the second-fastest pace in the NBA, so it's to be expected they'll give up their fair share of fast break points from time to time. Legs get tired. Bodies become harder to turn the opposite direction to hustle back. Some teams are really good at putting the ball in the paint before half of your team realizes it's back on defense. These things happen.
Thirteen games into the season, the Wolves give up the fifth-most fast break points per game (17.5) when adjusting for pace. That's not good but it's also not something that's really all that hard for them to overcome. They want to push the pace and maximize their talent on the floor, especially when they have the starting unit in. It's just a good way to ensure that talent wins out when they have the advantage.
However, the last two losses have been punctuated by two teams running the ball down the throats of the Wolves like their opponents were Bo Jackson in Tecmo Super Bowl. The Washington Wizards scored 33 fast break points and shot 76.2% in transition during Tuesday night's game. The Los Angeles Clippers followed that up the next night with 25 fast break points and 66.7% shooting in transition.
The Clippers are tied as the best transition team in the NBA, making 59.9% of their transition shots and scoring 1.26 points per possession. That's an incredible rate of success for those opportunities. The Wizards also score 1.26 points per transition possession and make 59.6% of their shots in those situations. It's expected that it would be tough to slow those teams down but the Wolves have one of the most efficient transition defenses in the NBA.
On the season (even after those two brutal performances), the Wolves have given up the second-fewest points per transition possession at 0.99. This is mostly due to the fact that they force a turnover in transition 20.2% of the time, which really saves them. The problem against the Wizards and Clippers the last two games is they simply weren't in position to put up much resistance in the open court.
After the Clippers loss, Rick Adelman cited a couple of things for their problems in defending the fast break. The Wolves simply weren't running back on defense hard enough or as consistently as they needed to. They also were getting taken advantage of at times because of poor balance in their halfcourt sets.
Let's look at a few of the transition issues we saw against the Washington Wizards
In the first play, you've got Jan Vesely anticipating a pass and taking it the other way. You'll get some hustle from Corey Brewer who is trailing the play, but you can notice how long it takes the rest of the guys to get back. The second play of this reel shows a lack of hustle and communication. Alexey Shved has to stay stride for stride with Vesely here and keep him from having a resistance-free path to the basket.
The third play looked like a total lack of communication between the three players back on defense. Because of John Wall's speed, they all seemed to converge on him, leaving Jan Vesely unabated once again. For crying out loud, Jan Vesely was given the one shot he can make (uncontested at the rim) over and over again.
The fourth play in which Rubio takes the baseline jumper is a great example of the imbalance Adelman talked about after the Clippers game. With Rubio in the lower part of the halfcourt, it puts the onus on the rest of the guys to retreat back on defense even quicker than they should. Instead, you have Love and Martin hustling back while Brewer and Pekovic lag behind. The Wizards have a numbers advantage, which leads to an open 3-point shot.
The final play of the highlight (lowlight?) reel involves Rubio, who simply needed to recognize when he should commit a quick foul. It's not a major mistake but it led to an easy transition basket instead of making them earn it at the free throw line.
The Clippers' transition points seemed to come because of players being slow to get back (back-to-back legs?) and poor communication as well.
The way they played transition defense in this game seemed to show they were probably not up for hustling back on the second night of a back-to-back. It also showed that communication is paramount to having a solid transition defense. For the most part, the Wolves have done that this season. The two bigs are pretty good about getting back and Brewer has been right with Rubio most possessions to cut off a lot of passes on the break.
But on nights in which that effort isn't there, they aren't good enough or athletic enough to make up for a lack of being in position. They proved that consistently against the Clippers. If the Wolves are able to get into position in transition defense, you can feel good about them defending it. The turnover percentage they force is proof of that.
The Wolves should look at these two losses and recognize that the effort has to be consistently there. If it's not, they can end up on the wrong side of runs and be bowled over in the open court. Considering that's what they've done so well against opponents for most of the season, they need to recognize what's effective about their transition game and not let their effort lag, lest they get run over.