The Joy of Defense

Shortly after the Minnesota Timberwolves dismantled the Denver Nuggets in Game Two of the second round of the N.B.A. playoffs, in Denver, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, a Timberwolves guard, stood in front of his locker, talking to reporters about the game, and fiddled with the tiny clasp of a necklace. He draped the chain across his neck, but the clasp eluded him. He brought his hands back in front of him and reset the opening, with the same methodical, patient attention he’d shown on the floor. Minnesota’s defense had just put on one of the more remarkable performances in recent league memory, holding a top-five offense to only eighty points. It was a matter of mind-set, Alexander-Walker told the reporters. He offered the usual bromides about wanting to win, and about respecting the defending champions—Denver won the title last year—then tried to fasten the necklace again. I was struck by his patience with the tricky clasp; he did not betray a hint of frustration. The gold of the chain flashed in his giant, gentle hands, and I thought of a moment during the game, when the camera had zoomed in on him. He’d been defending a ball handler with special tenacity, and he was smiling.

He and his teammates had put the Nuggets—particularly Jamal Murray, the team’s second-best player, a crucial part of Denver’s attack—through hell that night. Murray was playing on an injured calf, and had been shooting poorly throughout the playoffs; the Timberwolves had hounded him like something wounded. At one point in the second quarter, Alexander-Walker picked up Murray deep in the backcourt, raced to keep his feet in front of him, and harassed Murray with his long arms and those large hands. A second defender, Jaden McDaniels, slid over to help, with the shot clock ticking down and the ball barely at half-court. Under pressure, Murray stopped dribbling. Caged by the defenders, he heaved it backward to a teammate, who passed it back to him. The shot clock was down to seven seconds, and Alexander-Walker wasn’t giving Murray an inch to breathe. The Nuggets hadn’t scored in a while. Finally, Murray chucked the ball to a teammate in the corner, who hurled a rushed three-point attempt as the shot clock expired. The ball hit the side of the backboard.

A reporter asked Alexander-Walker where the tenacity he showed on that play had come from, and a light entered the baller’s eyes. “It’s just fun,” he said, and he shadowboxed as he replayed the scene, the necklace swinging from his fist. “You just lose yourself in it,” he said. On Twitter, the day before, somebody had posted a video of young children at a basketball practice. A tiny girl jitterbugs around a much taller player, her arms straight out from her sides, her body a few inches away from the girl she’s guarding, but never making contact. “The entire Minnesota Timberwolves roster plays defense like this,” the Twitter user joked. It was true, and it wasn’t just a matter of maniac intensity. The Wolves looked like they were having fun. They have great size and length and athleticism, but they have something else, too—a joy that they manage to find in the least glamorous part of the game.

That was one futile sequence of many for the Nuggets against Minnesota’s defense—what’s more, the Timberwolves were without Rudy Gobert, who would win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year Award the next morning, and who had skipped Game Two following the birth of his first child. Murray was held to eight points on three-for-eighteen shooting, with four turnovers; usually unflappable, he got so frustrated that, during a stretch on the bench, he threw first a towel and then a heat pack onto the floor, in the direction of a referee. For this, he was fined a hundred thousand dollars but, surprisingly, not suspended. The joke on Twitter afterward was that the real punishment would be having to face Minnesota’s defense again.

Murray was hardly the only Nugget to struggle. In the first quarter, Nikola Jokić, the best player in the world, had four points and three turnovers, and looked somehow both harried and disengaged. At one point, the team’s coach, Michael Malone, ran onto the court to argue a call at such a roiling boil that I worried less about a technical foul than about the health of his arteries. The team finished the game with as many turnovers as assists.

The emphasis in basketball is forever on offense. The allure of the game is in its creative possibilities, the brilliant passes and improbable baskets, which come to seem, at times, conduits of joy. Defenders are, frankly, a pain in the ass. Defense in basketball gets respect, but grudgingly. Defense wins championships, the saying goes—but offense wins M.V.P.s, All-Star votes, big contracts, and adulation. Defense is, by definition, reactive, disruptive, destructive. It depends on teamwork, and it can be hard to disentangle individual performances from the collective effort. A great offensive player can create his own scoring opportunities; a great defender, by himself, can only do so much to stop him.

Last year, after acquiring Gobert from the Utah Jazz for a king’s ransom, the Timberwolves played middling basketball. There were reports of teammates fistfighting; McDaniels broke his hand punching a wall. They lost to the Nuggets in the first round of playoffs last year—but earned some respect from the eventual champions, with their intensity and scrappy resolve. This year, the whole complexion of the team seemed to change. Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, neither of whom seems particularly beloved around the league—Gobert was recently voted the most overrated player in the N.B.A. in an anonymous poll of fellow-players—were, by all appearances, embraced by their teammates. Minnesota’s backup center, Naz Reid, who had played timidly against Jokić in the playoffs last year, became the best reserve in the league. Mike Conley, a longtime veteran point guard, was a calm, stabilizing force for a young team.

And then there was Anthony Edwards, an impossibly athletic guard whose smile is almost as photogenic as his fadeaway, the most charismatic player since Michael Jordan. Edwards is twenty-two years old, and has dominated the playoffs so far; he honors his elders by delighting in destroying them. With the Timberwolves, it is hard to separate the joy from the winning, or the winning from the joy.

The series moved back to Minnesota for Game Three, on Friday, and Murray was booed loudly as soon as he touched the ball. He seemed to relish it. The long gap between games had given his calf some time to heal, and he was moving with a more decisive first step. The effect was immediate: instead of being caught, over and over, in the full-court pressure, he got past it. Every time he saw a slim opening to the rim, he rammed through it. And he repeatedly found Jokić in the short midrange, which let the big man feast on his usual diet of sweet lobs and floaters. (The Nuggets also had the skilled forward Aaron Gordon bring the ball up the court and initiate the action more often than usual, giving Murray a break.) “It’s fun. I embrace that challenge. I embrace that moment,” Murray said, after the game. “I probably deserved the boos, so I’m not shying away from it.”

Home can be a trap, for a basketball team: the energy is high, but hard to harness. Early in the first quarter, Murray ran right by Edwards and then scored over Gobert. Later in the quarter, Murray executed a few hard dribbles and Jokić set a screen that sent Alexander-Walker sprawling when he tried to scramble over it. Later, Murray befuddled Towns with a spectacular double-crossover, then sunk a long midrange shot. By halftime, he had eighteen points. In the fourth quarter, Alexander-Walker injured himself by stumbling over another Jokić screen, then got a technical foul for arguing. He punched a chair on the bench on his way to the locker room. The Nuggets led by as many as thirty-four points, and ultimately blew out the Wolves, 117–90.

Gobert was back from his brief leave, and protecting the rim again, but it hardly seemed to matter: much of the action from the Nuggets was on the perimeter. The Timberwolves looked shaky all night, for the first time in this series. No one expected the Wolves to handle the Nuggets as easily as they had in the first two games; no one expected the Nuggets to score as easily as they had in Game Three. In the post-season, narratives seem to unfold with a kind of implacable inevitability—but only in hindsight. Now Denver is the team having fun, and it’s Minnesota’s turn to respond. Every good playoff series involves a sense of discovery. What can you do under pressure? When you lose yourself, who do you become? ♦

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