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Can Defense Still Win Championships? An N.B.A. Team Is Making the Case.

SportCan Defense Still Win Championships? An N.B.A. Team Is Making the Case.

One suspects Michael Malone isn’t surprised by what he’s seeing.

The Denver Nuggets coach was taught first-hand about championship-level defense by his late father, Brendan, a lifer in the game and a longtime assistant coach for the Detroit Pistons. He was on Chuck Daly’s staff for the 1989 and 1990 championships. Most relevantly, Brendan Malone was the defensive mind behind “The Jordan Rules,” the Pistons’ blueprint for how to keep Michael Jordan from dominating playoff games, the way Denver’s Nikola Jokić does now.

The Rules were pretty simple, actually.

Detroit’s Hall of Fame guard Joe Dumars, one of the best on-ball defenders of that era, would do everything he could to keep Jordan from getting to his favorite spots on the floor, contesting when Jordan rose for a jumper. If and when Jordan beat Dumars or other Detroit defenders off the dribble, they would funnel Jordan into the paint, where any number of long-limbed and ornery Pistons defenders were waiting: Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, John Salley, Dennis Rodman, James Edwards. They would converge on Jordan like a pack of jackals, forcing him to shoot over their length. If Jordan tried to elevate, one or more of them would send him hurtling to the ground.

Over the course of a six- or seven-game series, the overt physicality would wear Jordan down. If Jordan didn’t get offensive help from elsewhere, the frustration between him and his Bulls teammates would only grow. It took Chicago years of playoff futility before it finally vanquished Detroit in 1991.

Accordingly, Michael Malone knows full-well the psychological underpinnings of what the Minnesota Timberwolves have done to his defending NBA champion Nuggets in the first two games of their Western Conference semifinals series.

Minnesota hasn’t just won the important moments in the first two games in Denver to take a 2-0 series lead back to Minnesota, where a raucous crowd at Target Center awaits Friday and Sunday nights. The Wolves have taken the Nuggets’ heart as well, the way the Pistons — and, ultimately, Jordan’s Bulls — used defense to demoralize and rattle opponents.

“You can’t lose the game and the fight. You have to win one of them,” Denver’s Reggie Jackson said after Game 2.

There were the long, seemingly limitless arms of Minnesota’s Jaden McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, jumping Denver’s Jamal Murray at midcourt in Game 2, attacking him with relentless energy and movement — while not fouling him. They forced a 24-second violation early in the second quarter Monday night.

There was Rudy Gobert’s defensive paint presence in Game 1, before Gobert missed Game 2 to be with his girlfriend for the birth of their first child and before he won his fourth NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. In Game 2, without Gobert, the Wolves didn’t miss a beat, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Naz Reid, neither of whom was known as a shutdown defender before this season, each putting a physical body on Jokić all game.

For someone who has lamented the surgical, years-long campaign by the NBA to remove all but the most rudimentary elements of defense from the game, culminating in not-watchable All-Star Games in recent years, watching the Wolves harass and disrupt the Nuggets has been delightful. It is like putting a VHS tape into a Panasonic PV-V4522, watching NBC’s vaunted Thursday night lineup, circa “A Different World”/”Cheers”/”L.A. Law,” and washing down dinner with a Bartles and Jaymes cooler.

Mama, I’m home.

You can still play defense in the NBA, if you’re allowed to do so.

The league’s de-emphasis on calling every little bit of contact, as its officials did the first half of the season, hasn’t harmed the game one bit in the postseason. In fact, the playoffs have been spectacular, with plenty of offensive wizardry on display, starting with Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards. But there’s also been Jalen Brunson, Luka Dončić, Kyrie Irving, Donovan Mitchell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Tyrese Maxey, Paolo Banchero, Tyrese Haliburton … do I need to go on?

Minnesota has dominated, and won, its first six playoff games with its ferocious defense, just as Oklahoma City and Boston have. Minnesota defenders aren’t pushing and shoving or hacking; they’re moving their feet, beating the Nuggets to their favored spots on the floor and not giving up those spots easily. The Wolves aren’t doing anything dirty. They’re just making manifesting misery for their opponent.

This was Denver’s second possession of Game 2.

“He threw it away,” said TNT’s all-world play-by-play man, Kevin Harlan, of Jokić. But Jokić didn’t throw it away — Kyle Anderson punched the ball out of Jokić’s hands with his off hand, just as the Joker started his post-up move.

This Denver possession was three minutes into the game.

Murray is limited with his calf injury. But he, like all the Nuggets, feast off opponents who double-team Jokić. That’s Denver’s whole raison d’être: Jokić’s brilliance with the ball, slicing up defenses with his 360-degree view of what’s happening on the floor. This time, Towns inhaled Murray’s drive, with guard Mike Conley swiping at the ball down low.

David Adelman, who’s been Michael Malone’s right-hand man as his top assistant coach, has surely seen this before.

His father, Hall of Fame coach Rick Adelman, had to try to traverse the Pistons and the Bulls with his great Portland Trail Blazers teams, led by Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, in the 1990 and 1992 NBA Finals, respectively. Portland got both the best of Detroit’s defense and the Bulls’ venerated “Dobermans” — the moniker for Chicago’s defense, conjured up by Bulls assistant coach Johnny Bach.

The Dobermans, initially, featured Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. When Grant left for Orlando in free agency after Chicago’s first three-peat, Chicago reached for Rodman — who, by then, had worn out his welcome in San Antonio. Rodman, in a totally different way from Grant, lifted the Bulls’ defense even higher; Chicago led the league in defensive rating in his first season (1995-96), and the Bulls were top five in each of his three seasons there, all of which ended in championships.

Jordan was, especially early in his career, amazing in his defensive anticipation. He was Defensive Player of the Year in 1988, using his long arms like a scythe, cutting the ball away from opposing ballhandlers.

Pippen, though, made Chicago impenetrable.

His length, smarts, physicality and ability to jump passing lanes made him one of the best all-time defenders. Chicago used him everywhere, against anyone, from Magic Johnson to Charles Barkley.

The Wolves have played like those Pistons and Bulls teams. They’ve made it hard for their opponents to do what they want. They haven’t given an inch. The game is at its absolute best when a simple question is answered: Who can, with their talent and will and coaching and toughness, overcome the physical objections of their opponent?

Minnesota’s defense has been sophisticated in its planning and well-executed in real time. Like other teams in the Jokić Era, the Wolves often aren’t guarding him with their center.

In Game 1, they dropped Gobert into a roaming position off Denver’s power forward — usually Aaron Gordon — and let Gobert stray to protect the front of the rim. That led to Gobert, in what may have been the key play in Minnesota’s win Saturday, being free to tip and steal a Jokić lob to Gordon out of the dunker spot with three minutes left and the Wolves clinging to a five-point lead. The Wolves got out in transition, and Edwards got fouled, making two from the free-throw line. What could have been a three-point game was instead a seven-point game.

Minnesota’s had the top-ranked defense in the league all season. It allowed the fewest points in the league (106.5 points per game) and was No. 1 in opponents’ effective field goal percentage (51.5), which accounts for the extra value of 3-pointers.

Different sites have different ways to determine stats like defensive rating. No matter the source, the Wolves are top-ranked in that category.

StatMuse has Minnesota No. 1 in defensive rating at 109.0, an edge of more than two full points over second-place Orlando (111.3). It’s the biggest gap between the top- and second-ranked defense in that category as StatMuse determines it, in eight years, since the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs held a 2.4-point edge on the second-place Atlanta Hawks (101.4). Minnesota had the best defensive rating this season at 108.4, according to NBA.com’s calculations, 2.2 points ahead of the Boston Celtics. Basketball-Reference.com has Minnesota at the top in both its unadjusted and adjusted (for schedule) defensive ratings metrics.

You can’t implement “The Jordan Rules” now; the NBA has legislated most of the physicality that was at the heart of them out of the game. That’s OK. Everything has to evolve. But the relentless defense, in spirit and body, that was at the heart of Detroit’s championship teams — and then Chicago’s — is still applicable. Minnesota’s showing that it can coexist with the incredible offensive talents in today’s game.

It’s a fight. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Required Reading

(Photo: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)


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