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Wolves notebook: Defense spurring team’s improvement, home court advantage, and more

Daring Westbrook to beat them worked out for Timberwolves

Russell Westbrook is a terrifying offensive player. He can get into the lane at will. Even with a body on him, he is adept at adjusting mid-air to lay it in or get the foul. Not only can he set up himself and teammates for baskets, he is one of the best rebounders at his position.

Westbrook finished Wednesday’s game with 38 points on 15-for-23 shooting. His 7-for-9 mark from the free throw line made up for his low volume of 3-pointers. Just two of his 23 attempts came from beyond the arc. Thunder players not named Westbrook were just 17-of-56 (30.3 percent) from the field.

The Thunder aren’t a bad 3-point shooting team but they’re not a good one either. They’re 13th in attempts per game, 15th in makes per game, but 21st in 3-point efficiency. They offset that some by being 10th in free throw attempts but are just 29th in free throw shooting percentage.

This is why the Wolves were able to pull away last night. The Thunder shot 25 3-pointers but made only six. And despite having 25 free throw attempts, they only made 75 percent of them. Otherwise, the Timberwolves did a great job of forcing Carmelo Anthony and Westbrook to beat them in the midrange.

Overall, the Thunder offense was ugly. The Wolves forced them into the paint in hopes of drawing the foul or forced them into a contested midrange jumper. It was like watching some play NBA 2K who can’t figure out the shooting mechanics so they just try to shoot as close to the basket as possible.

In a side note, the Timberwolves now own the tiebreaker over the Thunder.

Defense is leading to success

The first 11 games were ugly on the defensive end. After those games, the Wolves were surrendering 115.3 points per game and were one of the league’s worst defensive teams. Things sure have changed since then.

In the November, the team gave up 103.5 points per game. That rose to 104.7 in December in 15 games.

The defense has been the story of the New Year for the Timberwolves. In six games in January, the Wolves are holding opponents to just 95 points per game. Over their last seven games, they’ve held opponents to under 100 points in each of them. The last time the Timberwolves held opponents to under 100 points in seven consecutive games was 2008. Don’t ask how an Al Jefferson-led team played that well defensively for so long because I have no idea.

From the start of the season on October 18 thru November 30, the Timberwolves had the seventh-worst defensive rating. Since December 1, the Wolves have been top-10 in defensive rating. That stretch since December equates to 21 games or roughly one-quarter of the NBA season; this is no small sample.

The Timberwolves currently have the fifth best point differential in the league. Only Golden State, Houston, Boston, and Toronto have a greater one. Since December 1, only the Raptors and Warriors have a better point differential.

The nice thing about point differential is that it factors in both offensive and defensive production. It’s becoming clear that the Wolves are difficult to beat when they’re locked in defensively because of their offensive prowess. We’ve seen that getting talented young offensive players to buy into the importance of defense is difficult but now that they’ve seen success, they’re seeing proof that it works.

Wolves will want home-court advantage in the postseason

The Timberwolves have a four-game lead on the Blazers in the conference standings. If the playoffs were to start today, the Wolves would be the fourth seed and have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Playing at Target Center has made a difference for the team this season. The Wolves are 16-6 (.722) at home versus 11-10 (.528) on the road. Their fifth overall ranked offense gets even better at home. The Wolves score 3.2 more points at home than on the road as well.

On the defensive end is where the defense really stands out. In visiting arenas this season, the Wolves have surrendered a dreadful 109 points per game. When back at Target Center, opponents score just 102.1 points per game. That’s still far from elite but good enough when you have one of the league’s best offenses.

Playing well at home is important. That’s why Timberwolves coaches have stressed the importance of being able to win in front of your own fans. Right now, every NBA team with a .500 record also has a .500 or better record on the road. For the Wolves, only two teams have more wins on their home court and Minnesota has the same home record as Golden State. Oracle Arena has been a big advantage for the Warriors in recent years and it looks like Target Center is becoming one for the Wolves.

It’s looking like the Wolves will make the playoffs. Whether or not they advance may be determined whether they finish as the fourth or fifth seed. As we’ve seen, the Wolves have been tough to beat at home.

Fans are beginning to notice this team

There are so many teams you can spend your money on in Minnesota. With five professional sports teams and numerous collegiate teams in town, fans have to prioritize their dollars. Over the last decade, when fans have asked themselves what the best way to invest their time and money, the answer hasn’t been on the Timberwolves.

And who can blame them? This is a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in almost 15 years and have often been bad. In this town, you have to earn your ticket sales and the Timberwolves are beginning to earn theirs.

Wednesday night was their fifth-straight sellout game. The team hasn’t done that since late in the 2004 season, which also happens to be the last season the Wolves were this good. When the team won 40 games in 2014, they finished 11th in the league in attendance. The Wolves are currently 13th, which is a seven-spot jump from a season ago.

After spending the last three seasons in the near the bottom in attendance, the Wolves are once again enjoying playing in front of a full house.

Random Timberwolf in History: Robbie Hummel

Oh, man. This is a great one. Hummel played two seasons here and was a favorite among fans. Hummel came to the Timberwolves as the 58th overall pick in the 2012 draft and played 98 games in a Timberwolves uniform.Despite being a four-year star at Purdue, Hummel was a hit with Minnesota fans with his blue-collar playing style.

As a Sophomore, Hummel missed time with a broken vertebra. The following season he tore his ACL. He then returned for his Senior year and tore the same ACL again before coming back as a redshirt Senior. Despite being a former multi-time All-American, All-Freshman team, and All-Big 10 team member, Hummel slid because of injury.

It’s a shame that we will never know would ‘ve been had Hummel not had the injuries. He was a 14-point and seven-rebound per game player who was dangerous from beyond the arc. In his first NBA season, he knocked down 36 percent of his 3-pointers before regressing in his second season. Playing 16.5 minutes per game that year for Flip Saunders, Hummel grabbed three rebounds per game and hit on 52 percent of his 2-pointers.

His elite free throw shooting was one skill that never left him. After all, Hummel had the highest free throw shooting percentage in Purdue history as a Freshman. Hummel made 86.7 percent of his free throws in the NBA, including an impressive 93.8 percent as a rookie.

Hummel went overseas to play in Italy after leaving the Wolves in 2015. He saw modest success and attempted an NBA comeback with the Nuggets in 2016. He was waived after seven preseason games and promptly signed to play in Russia for the remainder of the season.

Hummel announced in October of 2017 that he was retiring from basketball at 28 years old. You can now catch him on an ESPN broadcast as a studio analyst and color commentator.


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