clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pistons vs. Timberwolves preview: Thibodeau’s defensive magic hasn’t caught on in Minnesota

With Minnesota, Philadelphia and Dallas coming up, 3-0 wouldn’t be asking too much.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves were the sexy pick in the preseason to capture one of the final playoffs spots in the always competitive Western Conference. With youngsters Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine already on the roster and Tom Thibodeau appointed as the new head coach, it’s not hard to see why so many held such high optimism.

Thing’s haven’t gone exactly to plan.

Sitting at 6-16, the Timberpupp’s have a long way to go to fulfill the high expectations that were pushed upon them.

That’s were the Pistons come into play; after a slugfest - to put it nicely - against Charlotte, the Pistons have winnable games against Minnesota, Philadelphia and Dallas to help get back on track. I can’t express this enough: they must take advantage of these games as I still cringe at the losses at Brooklyn and Phoenix.

Game Vitals

When: December 9th @ 8pm EST
Where: Target Center; Minneapolis, Minnesota
Watch: Fox Sports Detroit


Coach Thibodeau came to Minnesota with a reputation of a defensive guru and for good reason as he practically invented the ‘two-nine’ strategy to counter rule changes of the early 2000’s. As Doc Rivers’ defensive coach for the championship Celtics, Thib’s relied on a savvy group of veterans to execute his intricate defensive philosophy. In Minnesota, he’s dealing with players who are probably playing defense for the first time in their careers. Keeping that in mind, Thibodeau had to relax on some of his defensive principles.

Let’s take a look at one strategy that has changed from his Boston day’s and one that remains the same:

In Boston, a Thib’s staple included a hard show or hedge by the big in a centered pick and roll. No one - maybe ever - did this better than Kevin Garnett and it held true with the rest of Boston’s roster. A hard hedge requires constant communication and again, no one did this better than Garnett.

Communication is often lost on young players let alone a team full of wide eyed could-be-still-in-college guys. Anthony-Towns has the tools to do this but it takes time. In the example above, instead of a hard hedge, KAT simply switches. Of course Boston switched too on certain occasions but you won’t find any Minny big doing this.

Another strategy Thibodeau is famous for is ICE-ing the sideline pick and roll, this remains a constant with the Timberwolves. ICE simply means to force the action towards the baseline and away from the lane.

Above, LaVine does a good job in keeping Rodney Hood away from the paint by forcing him to his help in the form of Gorgui Dieng (also, if you squint real hard, that’s Ben Wallace in a Cleveland uniform).

As with most good things, ICE-ing has been copied by many teams and coaches because if ran properly, only two defenders are needed to negate the sideline pick and roll. Again though, that’s if ran properly.


It doesn’t take much for a defensive scheme to lose it’s way. If Player A zig’s when a zag was called, it usually ends up in a good look for the offense.

Watch this next play at least three times. First, watch Ricky Rubio, then KAT and lastly, watch the play unfold (I know, I know...homework sucks).

Rubio: At the very beginning of the play you can clearly see Rubio’s name and number on the back of his jersey from our TV angle. This typically means he’s trying to force the ball handler away from the viewer. Well, he fails.

Anthony-Towns: Expecting the ball handler to go the other way (as designed), he starts to help on the wrong side of the eventual penetration.

Result: The great Nicolas Laprovittola (um, who?) penetrates by beating Rubio and a back peddling, awkward KAT and a finishes with nice little euro step.

Defense is fun like that. At 108.0, Minnesota’s defensive rating sits at 26th in the league. It’s got to drive Thibodeau nuts.


If you think all Zach LaVine can do is dunk, you need League Pass.

Anthony-Towns and Wiggins scoop up most of the hype but it’s LaVine who has made arguably the biggest jump over the past season. The not-yet-22 year old leads the team in average minutes played at 37 per contest and while he’s traditionally a shooting guard, he can dabble at lead guard.

The maturation of his offensive game goes far beyond dunking; he’s turned into a patient scorer, which is extremely tough to defend.

Below, Dieng sets a hammer screen for LaVine on the weakside - 99/100, a hammer screen is meant to set up the corner three:

LaVine catches the ball in the corner but instead of rushing a 3-point attempt, he plays a quick give-and-go with Dieng and ends up with a bucket just as the shot clock is set to expire. SportsCenter worthy? No. Pissed off opposing coach? You bet.

Still don’t believe he’s a legit two guard?

Watch how the San Antonio Spurs react to the elevator door screen set for LaVine.

Kawhi Leonard, Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge all react to LaVine leaving a wide open path to the hoop. They ain’t doing that for a bum.

Projected Lineups


Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Karl Anthony-Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Andrew Wiggins


Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Andre Drummond, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris


Again, this is game we need to win and there is no reason why the Pistons shouldn’t leave Minneapolis with a W.

The Timberwolves are 2-8 in games that are within five points within the the last five minutes. The late game blunders that cost Minnesota a handful of wins last year were suppose to be cured with the addition of Thibodeau but he has failed to make an impact in that department.

Teams can run on Minny and this should light up Ish Smith and the second unit’s eyes.

Minnesota is on the second night of a traveling back-to-back and are only 3-7 at home this year; not exactly a house of horrors.

Pistons 102, Timberwolves 88

Community Question

I watch between 15-20 minutes of college basketball each season so I really don’t have a grasp on what’s going on but it seems like the college game suppresses their talent. How does Karl Anthony-Towns get 20 minutes a game and average 10 points in his only season at Kentucky playing LSU and Alabama but then average 18 points in his rookie year playing professionals? I believe Kentucky utilized a hockey shift substitution pattern but they didn’t win, so play KAT more, right? That’s one example, I could name 100.