Timberwolves’ defensive game plan shines again in runaway win over depleted Dallas

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Tim Hardaway Jr. has likely never seen as much defensive attention as he received Wednesday at Target Center.

Whether it was Anthony Edwards, Nickeil Alexander-Walker or Kyle Anderson, someone was always within a foot of Dallas’ sharpshooter. His defender would not help into any gaps. Eyes were locked on Hardaway Jr. at all times. It was as close to face guarding as you’ll see at any point in the NBA regular season.

Minnesota treated him like he was Steph Curry.

So Hardaway Jr., who scored 36 points Monday against Orlando and had a 42-point performance earlier in January, was visibly frustrated for much of the night and finished with just 14 points on 5-for-16 shooting — a direct result of his lack of breathing room every trip down the floor as Minnesota cruised to a 121-87 victory.

The 87 points were the fewest Minnesota has allowed all season. Dallas shot 41 percent from the field, and was a catastrophic 6 for 29 from 3-point range.

There was good reason for the Timberwolves’ defensive approach Wednesday. Dallas was sans three starters, including star guards Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. Hardaway Jr. was Dallas’ firepower.

By taking him away, Minnesota cut the Mavericks off at the knee. The Wolves were more than willing to play 4 on 4 basketball against the likes of Jaden Hardy, Seth Curry and Grant Williams, none of whom are real threats to beat you. Particularly not when guarded by Minnesota’s bevy of strong perimeter defenders.

So even while Minnesota struggled offensively in the first half Wednesday, the contest never appeared to be in doubt. Because not only did the Wolves have the depleted Mavericks significantly outmanned, but the defensive game plan was immaculate. There was only one Mavericks player that could beat Minnesota on Wednesday, and the Timberwolves gave him zero opportunity to do so.

That’s an underrated part of Minnesota’s defensive success this season. The game plans developed by the coaching staff are generally detailed and well thought out. Another example came Monday against Oklahoma City, when Minnesota put Rudy Gobert on non-shooter Josh Giddey, effectively allowing Gobert to roam freely like a massive free safety, available to help all teammates.

That’s not often the case around the NBA. Watch the Timberwolves on a nightly basis and it’s very clear some opponents have not done their homework on the best ways to stymie Minnesota.

The Wolves never find themselves in such a position. Sure, it’s easier to plan when you have the chess pieces the Timberwolves possess. They have Rudy Gobert and more adept wing defenders than most teams in the Association. But the way Wolves coach Chris Finch and his staff employ those assets is exemplary.

It’s an important part of the equation that has led to Minnesota owning the NBA’s top defensive rating, and to suffocating performances like the one Minnesota put forth Wednesday.

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