Ahead of most games, Liberty Ballers conducts a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Dane Moore, who covers the Minnesota Timberwolves for Blue Wire Podcasts and Bring Me The News.
How have things changed since head coach Chris Finch took over? How has the big 3 of Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards played/been used under him?
I think the biggest thing that has changed under Chris Finch is the status quo. With a roster headlined by Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards, the status quo was that this was a roster that could not perform at even an average defensive level. In the first six seasons of KAT’s career, the Wolves were a bottom-10 defense every year. But now, in KAT’s seventh year, the Wolves found themselves as a top-10 defense at the halfway point of the year. And even with a defensive dip over the past month, the Wolves defense is still above average, something Wolves fans haven’t seen in nearly two decades. Finch, who was heralded as an offensive guru coming into the job, has most notably changed the defense.
Minnesota opened the year as a defense-first team but has been the opposite for a while now. Why is that?
I think the difference ties to two factors: fatigue and the offensive efficiency spiking. While the Wolves defense was shockingly top-10 for the first few months of the season, equally shocking was the fact that the offense was bottom-10. Since the turn of the new year, the Wolves have had the best offense in the NBA outside of Phoenix. And with that, they started feeling themselves a little bit. Anthony Edwards described it as getting “cocky.” And that relative ease on offense has led to easing off the gas pedal defensively.
The defense is also about fatigue, though, just given how they defend. After running various iterations of drop coverage around KAT for the first six years of his career, Finch schematically shifted the Wolves into being a more aggressive defensive — most notably playing KAT at the level of the screens defensively. This schematic shift has had a profound impact on the team — largely for the better — but it also has come with the baggage of fatigue, just because this style of defense not only asks KAT to do more, but also asks the other four players around him to scramble. (They’ve also started to diversify coverages a bit over the past month — most notably, switching more often. And they’re just not very good at it.)
How do you think they’ll go about defending Joel Embiid?
Well, they’ll put KAT on him. The trickier piece to pin down will be how they go about bringing double teams onto Embiid. James Harden will obviously be making his debut, and if you’re the Wolves, that very much changes up when and where you can afford to double. I think Finch will be more focused on matching up with Harden than he will with Embiid — just because he probably has more faith in KAT checking Embiid than he does with Edwards getting matched up with Harden.
What’s one matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?
It’s cliche to say KAT-Embiid, but I don’t know how you could say there is a more critical matchup to find. I always find it fascinating how opposing teams try to guard KAT. We’ve seen teams this year do everything from guarding him with a small to bigs doubling him on the catch. The most interesting matchups, though, are when KAT just gets the freedom to go one-on-one all night, as he will against Embiid.
I’m of the mind that it’s almost universally a bad idea to single cover KAT. But Embiid might be the one matchup where it makes the most sense. But even in the last Wolves-Sixers matchup, Doc went away from putting Embiid on KAT in the second half — opting to guard KAT with Tobias Harris and bringing Embiid over for the lurking double team, which worked way better. So, I’ll not only be watching that matchup, but specifically how much space Doc gives Embiid to handle KAT by himself.
Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?
The Wolves starting five has probably been the most pleasant surprise of the season. They spent the first few weeks of the season guessing and checking who to start next to Towns, Edwards and Russell. But ultimately they landed on Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt being the best two. Once that five started playing together, they were dominant — posting a net rating over plus-50 in their first 12 games together.
After the puzzle pieces of the roster didn’t make much sense coming into the year, Beverley and Vanderbilt changed that. Now, all that said, the starting five has dropped off in terms of their effectiveness over these past 12 games — down to a net rating of just plus-2.
Biggest disappointment of the season?
Malik Beasley. After shooting 40 percent from deep on heavy and needed volume a season ago, Beasley’s existence in the offense has more often than not been awkward. His volume has been there, but the effectiveness has dropped down to 35 percent. And with his minutes having decreased, it just feels like he’s shooting all the time out there and not making them very often. Beasley plays a very specific and critical role for this team that requires his high-level shooting. And without that shooting, Wolves viewers have just been left wanting more.
What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this one?
I think we’ll learn a lot about the Wolves’ defense in these first few games. They’ve all talked about being very tired entering the break. So, are they going to be rested and ready to go? I’d be watching for how effective the Sixers’ offense is in the first quarter. If they roll through the Wolves early, this won’t be a close game. But if the Wolves come out and generate a handful of turnovers in the first quarter that lead to easy run-out buckets, I think you have a game script that is shaping up to favor the Wolves.