Wolves’ shut-down defense frustrates Suns in first-round playoff series

In early November, the Timberwolves had a homestand in which they welcomed the Nuggets and Celtics.

They beat both the defending champions and the team that would go on to have the best record in the regular season, and those two games were the Wolves announcing to the league that their defense was a force.

The Wolves won both games on the strength of that defense, which vaulted to No. 1 in league rankings about as quickly as Mariah Carey songs hit the top of the Billboard charts in the 1990s.

Their defense showed its ceiling in those matchups, especially in the win over the Nuggets, whom they held to 89 points. But as the season went along, there was always something bothering coach Chris Finch; the Wolves never seemed to consistently hit the level of defense they played in November.

Their defense would have its moments, but the grind of the schedule provided peaks and valleys, even if it remained the No. 1 unit throughout the season.

But after the Wolves held Phoenix to under 100 points for the second consecutive game in taking a 2-0 series lead, Finch said what he saw reminded him of how the Wolves played back then.

"I would say in the first half of the season, we played a lot more like this," Finch said. "I think in the second half, we kind of were a lot more inconsistent with our physicality on defense. The playoffs kind of bring that out of you naturally, so that's been good for us."

A playoff schedule can be a little more forgiving on the players' bodies than the grind of NBA road trips, which can at times include games in three different cities in the span of four days.

The Wolves had five days off before Game 1, another two before Game 2 and will have another two before Game 3, time that is not often available to rest and recuperate during the regular season.

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The Wolves used that time to their benefit in both games, as their defense never let up against a Phoenix team that looked defeated, more than just on the scoreboard, by the end of each game.

"It's super satisfying, but it's not over," said center Naz Reid, who was named the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year on Wednesday. "You've got to kind of continue that and actually up it. We're trying to get to somewhere that we've never been. Two games don't get it done. I think everybody has understood and knows the assignment and I think everybody is going to up it. I think we're all ready for it."

It has helped that the Wolves have had willing perimeter defenders such as forward Jaden McDaniels and guards Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Anthony Edwards, who have been a revelation this series when on the floor together. That three-man unit is a plus-40 for the series in 35 minutes of time together.

"Every time I go on the court and I see them two, I just be like, 'Who you wanna guard?'" McDaniels said. "It don't matter which person we guard. It's great to have. With Rudy [Gobert] behind us as well, I mean, it just makes it difficult for the other team."

And the Wolves have had time to gather up their energy thus far in the playoffs so they can defend at some of the highest levels they have all season.

"When we sat down in training camp and said what team do we want to be, we said we wanted to be a defensive-minded team and be the best in the league," Gobert said. "We can be unique, but it comes with a price. It comes with doing the dirty work, it comes with doing the things you don't see on the stats and doing it consistently. I really felt like from Day 1 of training camp, everyone really bought in to be that team."