The Timberwolves are struggling with Tom Thibodeau’s trademark defense

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio (9) is in my DraftKings daily picks for tonight. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio (9) is in my DraftKings daily picks for tonight. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

For the 2001-02 season, as a response to the increasing use of isolation, the NBA created new illegal defense rules that allowed teams to play zone defense and double-team offensive players. This led to an increased usage of the pick-and-roll game, as teams couldn’t just give the ball to one player and let him work against a single defender. Offenses had to become more creative and in turn, defenses had to become more creative to stop them. Enter Tom Thibodeau.

Thibodeau made his name with teams that were defensive stalwarts — as an assistant with the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets under Jeff Van Gundy, with the Boston Celtics under Doc Rivers, and then as a head coach for the Chicago Bulls who were known not only for their intensity and focus on the defensive end of the floor, but for Thibodeau’s creative schemes that brought out the best in his players. One of Thibodeau’s inventions during his time in Boston, one that he has carried with him throughout his coaching career is the concept of the ICE defense as a way to defend the side pick-and-roll with just two defenders. ICE has become a very popular scheme and is now used across the NBA.

Typically, teams have to use three defenders to defend a pick-and-roll: the defenders of the two players involved in the play, and a third rotating defender who comes over to contain the roll man while the other defenders get back into their proper positions. The necessity for three defenders leaves shooters open on the weak side and quality point guards make their living finding the right pass in those situations. Additionally, when the pick-and-roll is on one side of the floor and not in the center, the point guard is coming around the screen toward the middle of the floor and has all the space he needs to see what the defense is giving him and make the right decision.

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ICE takes away both of these advantages for the offense; it doesn’t require a third defender rotating over from the weak side and doesn’t allow the ball-handler to get into the middle of the court. Fundamentally, ICE is easily recognizable by two traits: the ball-handler’s defender jumps over the screen to force the ball-handler toward the baseline and the big man hangs back around the block on that side of the floor to defend the ball-handler’s drive.

Eight years and change after winning a title on the back of this defense with the Celtics, Thibodeau has moved on to Minnesota, where he’s taken over a young Wolves team with high expectations. Through the first quarter of the season, things aren’t going as well as many had thought and some of that may be down to the struggles of the players to understand and execute Thibodeau’s ICE scheme. If you have any familiarity with Thibodeau’s coaching philosophies, it won’t surprise you to know that ICE, like everything Thibodeau’s teams do, requires an incredible amount of energy, focus, and trust between teammates to make work, otherwise the system falls apart.

The Wolves are having trouble with Thibodeau’s scheme and frequently one or both defenders are out of position, ceding an easy opportunity to the other team. Watch below how Karl-Anthony Towns being out of position gives up a layup (albeit one that misses and has to be put back) to Justin Holiday.

The Knicks swing the ball to Holiday on the perimeter and Kyle O’Quinn steps over to set a screen for him. In keeping with his team’s principles, Zach LaVine slides his right foot forward, giving Holiday the baseline to drive to the rim but disallowing him from going over the screen and into the middle of the floor. Towns, however, instead of dropping back into the paint, is pressing up as if he’s waiting to trap Holiday as he comes around the screen. Holiday gladly takes the open baseline, and while he can’t finish the layup, both Towns and Gorgui Dieng come over to contest and O’Quinn is free to clean up the mess.

In this next clip, watch how Dieng drops back into the paint as O’Quinn comes, but LaVine isn’t quick enough to react to the call and lets Derrick Rose get over the screen and into the middle of the paint.

LaVine tries to get over the screen before Rose does to ward him toward the baseline and the retreating Dieng, but he’s late and ends up hopelessly behind the play as Dieng is left to deal with the driving Rose and the rolling O’Quinn.

These clips highlight the two mistakes that defenses can make when executing the ICE scheme: either the big man is too far up and the baseline drive is wide open or the perimeter defender is late and doesn’t force the ball-handler to the baseline, leaving the rest of his team in a lurch.

Remember how the ICE defense is supposed to allow teams to defend the side pick-and-roll with just two defenders? Well, when the two on the strong side don’t execute correctly, the three Wolves on the weak side have to crash in and prevent a layup. Because the plan doesn’t call for a specific man to rotate over, sometimes multiple players move to stop the layup, leaving open a flock of shooters to whom the point guard can pass.

The Pelicans’ Tim Frazier brings the ball down in semi-transition and Wolves rookie Kris Dunn picks him up. Frazier is ahead of big man Anthony Davis, so when Davis steps over to screen for Frazier, Dunn sees him coming and correctly jumps over the screen, forcing Frazier the other way. The only problem: Dieng is still getting back on defense and is nowhere near the rim to contain Frazier’s drive. Towns and Andrew Wiggins both rotate over and Frazier finds E’Twaun Moore in the corner for the open three. Moore misses, but that’s beside the point. The entire objective of the ICE defense is to let the weak side defenders stay over there and stick to the shooters. Dieng not getting quickly back on defense obliterates that objective.

This particular play is just an example of a much bigger issue with the Wolves than their side pick-and-roll coverage; this team is downright awful in transition defense. Through Friday’s game against Charlotte, Minnesota has been giving up 1.22 points per possession in transition, the worst mark in the league this season. There’s no excuse for a young team like the Wolves not to put the effort into getting back on defense and plays like the above are what happen when they are lethargic in transition.

There is reason for optimism; there are many times when they execute correctly and the offense is forced into a bad mid-range jumper or contested floater.

In between these intermittent successes are strings of failures, which not only hurt the Wolves on that individual possession but also erode at the trust that is fostered by those successes. The perimeter defenders have to trust that the big man is going to be in position, the big man has to trust that the perimeter defender will get over the screen and force the ball-handler baseline, and the weak-side defenders have to stay home and trust that the two strong-side defenders can handle their business.

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Most defensive schemes, when run incorrectly, give up great shots to an offense, but ICE is on another level; the offense will often get a wide-open layup or three-pointer if the Wolves are even a little slow, a little late. And how you ain’t gon’ never be slow, never be late?

That’s what Thibodeau is asking of his Wolves.