Timberwolves coach Chris Finch was annoyed after just the second day of training camp.
So he made a decision for Day 3, the team's final full day of practice before it flew to Abu Dhabi for more than a week.
He would spend the entire practice on defense.
"We just did things over and over again until we felt right about what we were doing," Finch said. "Made a few tweaks, and it looked completely different. From that moment on, it's just been putting in practice and refining it as we went."
Since then, there have been few days Finch has been displeased with the defense.
The Timberwolves have started the season 11-4 because of their defense, which had the No. 1 efficiency in the league until Friday's loss to Sacramento. When they acquired three-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert, all involved from the team to the fans had hopes the Wolves could be an elite defensive team. That never quite panned out in Gobert's first season, although the Wolves did rank a respectable 10th in efficiency.
This season, the Wolves' defensive rating, which is the number of points given up per 100 possessions, is 107.3, third best in the league through Friday. Opponents are shooting 43.5% against them (second lowest in the NBA), and the Wolves have an NBA-leading plus-3.1 differential in field-goal shooting.
The Wolves defense has been largely a collaboration among Gobert, Finch and assistant coach Elston Turner, who oversees that end of the floor.
"[Gobert] wears Elston out a lot," Finch said with a laugh.
But Turner insists: "He's great to coach. … He takes constructive criticism great, and he's fun to coach."
After a year of working together, the three have become familiar with what works and what doesn't work for each other, and they asked one another to come out of their comfort zones.
"I told them before this season, we could be the top defense this year," Gobert said. "Keep trusting me, and I'm trusting you too."
Entering last season, the Wolves tried to play two different ways on defense depending on whether Gobert was on the floor. If he was, they would employ "drop" coverage, which is what Gobert excelled at in Utah. When he wasn't on the floor, the Wolves tried to play a more "high-wall," a scramble-around-and-rotate style of play that was a success for them two years ago in reaching the playoffs.
The Wolves were never quite able to pull that off to Finch's liking.
"The biggest problem with that is how it impacted not Rudy, not KAT [Karl-Anthony Towns], not Naz [Reid], but everyone else in the rotation," Finch said.
In other words, it was confusing for everyone to adjust back and forth in their responsibilities depending on which big man was playing center at a given time.
The Wolves had to streamline their approach coming into this season. But just what would that look like?
Finch and Turner have always preferred playing aggressive defenses. The drop coverage, which Gobert has played for more than a decade, isn't in that category, and Finch thought the Wolves relied too much on Gobert at times last season.
"In trying to send everything to Rudy [at the rim] all the time, I didn't think it used the entirety of our defensive strengths," Finch said. "We still have really good help defenders. We have other guys who are good at the rim like Jaden [McDaniels]. We have guys that are really good in the gaps like Anthony [Edwards], and so I just needed to activate those other guys, and I learned that last year."
The team is equally adept at defending from long range (opponents are shooting 32.7% from 25-29 feet, fifth lowest among NBA teams) and at the rim, where opponents are shooting 59.1%, fifth lowest in the league.
The Wolves weren't going to come into this year playing straight, conservative drop coverage. In essence, they were going to mix philosophies. They would be more aggressive in guarding the perimeter, and that's important when the Wolves have defenders such as McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker who can limit opponents in that area.
But that style meant their bigger players such as Gobert, Towns and Reid would have to be more active in rotations, something many teams avoid with their tall guys.
The Wolves embraced this.
"With our size, we do have two big bodies that are normally not accustomed to moving around, flying around the perimeter," Turner said. "That is one of the things we've worked on and continue to work on. … They're big smalls. 'Biggie smalls' is what I call them."
The Wolves were asking Gobert to move around the perimeter and do things he hasn't always done, such as guarding from different spots on the floor and upping his pressure on the ball. This has helped "activate" players such as Edwards and McDaniels to do what they do best: playing on-ball defense.
"Last year, we tried to lean on a lot of things that didn't necessarily suit our personnel," Finch said. "So we asked Rudy coming into this season to be more open-minded about doing other things. … He's been all in on it, and I think it's made all the difference because it's been a tone-setter."
The Wolves try to be analytically minded when it comes to how they play defense, Turner said. Previously, the Wolves would rotate with not much regard to whom they might be leaving open. Now they are more conscious about leaving good shooters open on the perimeter for the sake of rotation, but that doesn't change the general philosophy.
"You want to make it look like you got seven players out there," Turner said. "If they're in, they pass it out, and we're out. We rotate and are moving."
A lot of the credit for the Wolves' defensive success goes to Towns and Reid, who have both improved their ability to defend in the Wolves' scheme. Reid wasn't even in the rotation when Gobert arrived, but he became a high achiever and got playing time.
"We realized that KAT and Naz are better on switches and playing in actions than we originally thought," Finch said. "So instead of approaching it from the view of, 'Oh my God, we got to stay out of this,' they impressed us with their ability to learn how to do it and do it."
Back to form
One of the biggest factors in the defensive success has been the health of Gobert, who said early in the season he was feeling as good as he has in a long time. No play was a better example than one he made toward the end of a win over Golden State on Nov. 14.
With the Wolves ahead 99-98 and fewer than 40 seconds remaining, Warriors guard Chris Paul dribbled into the lane. Gobert moved to deter Paul from shooting his patented midrange jumper, and Paul dished the ball off to the corner to forward Dario Saric. But Gobert anticipated the pass and was able to get out to the corner in time to block Saric's shot for a key play in a Wolves win.
It was a reminder of why Gobert has won NBA defensive player of the year three times and why he's the betting favorite again this season. Finch said that during his time as an assistant in New Orleans coaching Jrue Holiday, he realized that a team should collaborate with its best defensive player the way it might with its best offensive player. He has applied that philosophy in having Gobert play a significant role in outlining the themes of the Wolves defense.
"I've always had the approach with offensive players that you've got to give them great freedom, and several years ago it struck me before I became coach here, why don't we do the same with defensive players?" Finch said. "You have to give those players an incredible amount of freedom to be able to navigate a lot of situations in the league that they have to face against these guys every night."
Even though Finch jokes that Gobert might wear out Turner, Gobert said he appreciates just how passionate Turner is about defense and that shared bond brings them together. If there's one thing that comes across about Gobert in his interviews, it's how much he loves defense and how personally he takes that end of the floor.
"What I love about [Turner] is that he really cares about what he does, and to me that's really, really important," Gobert said. "Caring about putting your soul into what you do and really taking a lot of pride into us being a great defensive team."
So far, so good.