"We lock up, man," Edwards said. "I don't care what nobody say about us. We play the best defense in the league. I stamp that."
Smiling a lot and laughing a bit, Edwards got even bolder from there: "And we're gonna have two, three people on the All-Defensive teams. I might be on one of 'em."
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That would be a colossal achievement for a team that finished last season with the third-worst defense in the NBA. What the Wolves did against the Bucks, though, was an achievement in itself. They held Milwaukee to 108 points per 100 possessions, its worst mark of the season aside from a debacle against the Miami Heat last week.
"We definitely can win games on the defensive end, man," Edwards said after the win. "Everybody boxes and elbows, make 'em make the next pass. That's what it was about tonight. Don't let Giannis Antetokounmpo beat us. I mean, he still went for I think like 40, but we won. So the game plan worked for sure."
Antetokounmpo indeed scored 40 points, and he did it on 15-for-23 shooting. Also relevant: Milwaukee was without guard Jrue Holiday and center Brook Lopez, and coach Mike Budenholzer used an 11-man rotation in search of lineups that would work.
I'm not even sure that Edwards was being totally serious when he declared that the Wolves play better defense than anybody else. But in the tiny sample size that is the first nine games of the 2021-22 season, they have the fifth-best defense in the league, per NBA.com. And according to Cleaning The Glass, which filters out heaves and garbage time, they rank second.
So, uh, small sample size, etc. -- is this for real? Yes and no.
Those numbers are wildly misleading because, early in the season, the level of competition wildly varies. Minnesota has already played two games against the New Orleans Pelicans, who were putrid offensively even in the game that they won. It opened the season against the Houston Rockets, who have only scored well against one opponent: the extremely rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder.
This isn't the first time, however, that Edwards has spoken in superlatives on this subject. "We were good offensively, but now we're great defensively," he said two weeks ago, following a preseason game in Brooklyn. Edwards wasn't the only one proud of the Wolves' defense against the Bucks, either.
"Unbelievable performance for us tonight from start to finish," coach Chris Finch said Wednesday. "Offense dried up a little bit as we went along, but our defense never really let down."
When Edwards said "boxes and elbows," he was referring to the positioning of its help defenders. To limit Antetokounmpo's driving lanes, Minnesota put defenders in the gaps. Jarred Vanderbilt started in place of Josh Okogie to take the Antetokounmpo matchup, but Finch did not leave Vanderbilt on an island. The Wolves weren't even afraid to switch D'Angelo Russell or Karl-Anthony Towns onto Antetokounmpo because they knew the gap help would be there:
This is hardly a new strategy against Antetokounmpo, and the risk is that, when you "throw a lot of bodies at him," as Finch put it, you surrender a lot of 3s for his teammates. The Bucks shot a season-low 27.5 percent from deep on a season-high 51 attempts.
Many of those were wide open. The Wolves now have practice, though, flying around and challenging shots. Finch installed a new base defense in training camp, with Towns playing up to the level of the screen against pick-and-rolls instead of dropping back to protect the rim. The old way was about minimizing rotations, with only two players defending the pick-and-roll. The new, more aggressive way makes it easier for opponents to put them in rotation, but, if they execute it properly, they can be far more disruptive.
Finch praised Jaden McDaniels' one-on-one defense against Khris Middleton, who scored 16 points on 6-for-16 shooting and missed seven of his eight 3-point attempts. McDaniels, 21, is already one of the more versatile defenders in the game -- he's a terror off the ball, and he guards everybody except big, bulky centers. Early in the game, he stopped a Middleton isolation and forced a turnover:
McDaniels and Vanderbilt had not shared the court in the regular season before the duo logged 23 minutes in Milwaukee. If Finch wants the Wolves to be as long and switchable as possible, he'll experiment with this some more. Directly before McDaniels' stop against Middleton, Vanderbilt jumped out on George Hill on a switch, deflected a pass to Antetokounmpo and sprinted the other way for an uncontested dunk.
In the fourth quarter, offseason addition Patrick Beverley saved Minnesota two points in transition, and the steal led to an easy two for Edwards:
The Wolves still have plenty of breakdowns. If Edwards' quote is meaningful, though, it's because it reflects a commitment to improving defensively. They're trying to make defense part of their identity, and they're approaching it differently than they used to. This is one of the reasons you trade for Beverley. Edwards, a poor defender last season, probably isn't about to make All-Defense, but he has undeniable upside. Maybe Minnesota's team defense does, too.