Wessel: Andrei Kirilenko leading defensive renaissance for Wolves
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The newcomer making the biggest impact for the 5-2 Minnesota Timberwolves wasn't even Plan A.
Andrei Kirilenko, who is leading the defensive renaissance on a Wolves team holding teams to 88.4 ppg (second in the league), wasn't even on David Kahn's radar until Portland matched the contract offer on restricted free agent Nicolas Batum.
Despite being 31 years old and coming off a year playing in Russia, Kirilenko has been the key of the defensive turnaround. At 6-foot-9 and a wingspan longer than most people are tall, Kirilenko can defend any position on the court. And the former All-Star is still filling up box scores, doing the little things coaches love. Through seven games he is averaging 3.9 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.7 steals to go along with his 11.9 points and 7.1 rebounds.
And it appears to be contagious. A year after it was unclear if Michael Beasley ever guarded anybody, seemingly everyone has bought into the defensive philosophy. Even Derrick Williams, who was a big part of the problem, has committed himself to get better defensively after admitting that wasn't something he really focused on early in his career.
The proof is in the numbers. The Wolves rank second in the league in defensive field goal percentage (40.8%) and second in scoring defense (88.4 points per game). Just two years ago under Kurt Rambis the Wolves finished the year allowing teams to shoot 46.8% and score a league-worst 107.7 points per game.
The amount of bad injury luck this team has had in the past month alone is borderline comical. Already without Ricky Rubio, the Wolves lost Kevin Love to a broken hand, J.J. Barea to a sprained foot, Brandon Roy to a sore knee (maybe two), Chase Budinger to a torn meniscus and Nikola Pekovic to a sprained ankle.
But injuries will heal and guys will return. They aren't through troubled waters yet and still have a ways to go. If they keep playing with a renewed sense of dedication on defense, they just might be able to ride out the storm until the cavalry arrives.
Many Wolves fans cursed their misfortune when the pursuit of Batum came up empty, but things turned out better than expected. Batum is younger and a more dynamic scorer, but Kirilenko finally gives the team a defensive stopper just a year after finishing No. 25 in the league in points allowed.
Conventional wisdom says the Wolves should be more like 2-5 than 5-2. But the team is off to its best start in a decade, and they aren't doing it with smoke and mirrors. Gone are the track meets of the last few seasons where the Wolves' only chance to win was to score 110 points and outlast their opponent.