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What caused Boston’s first quarter defensive struggles against Minnesota?

The Celtics fell to a 14-point deficit early against the Timberwolves.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

In the first quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Celtics found themselves in the eye of a storm. Being thrown side-to-side and rocked back-and-forth, Boston’s defense struggled to contain the Timberwolves’ high-paced five-out offense.

Minnesota had everything going their way. In transition, the likes of Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels found uncontested lanes to the hoop. If Boston managed to kill a fast break, the Timberwolves utilized the space around the free-throw line extended to punish the Celtics’ lackluster effort.

Off-ball cuts that flashed middle caused the Celtics defense nightmares on more than one occasion. If we look at the above play, we can see that the final cut before the basket synergized with McDaniels roll to the rim. Anthony Edwards, who had initially set a wedge screen for Karl-Anthony Towns, recognizes McDaniels cut has dragged Marcus Smart under the basket, so he flashes middle to receive the pass before finishing around the rim in traffic.

“They’ve been hard to guard, they scored 137 the other night against Indiana – in regulation.” Brad Stevens explained when detailing Boston’s early struggles on defense.

What makes the Timberwolves so hard to guard is the number of versatile scorers in their starting lineup. Towns is a threat from deep, or with his back to the basket, Edwards can hit the three or drive the lane, while McDaniels is a firecracker who can explode for points in quick bursts. Lead by veteran floor general Ricky Rubio, the Timberwolves utilize constant off-ball movement to stretch defenses and create open space around the nail.

Boston struggled to counter the fluidity of Minnesota’s offense to begin the game, allowing their defensive focus to be stretched on the perimeter. A core tenant of high level defensive organization is communication. When a defense is pushed to its maximum, it becomes harder for voices to carry over the floor, creating susceptibility to back cuts or angle screens.

“We were struggling to guard them. We were guarding them traditionally, with not much impact.” Stevens said when asked about the defensive adjustments after halftime.

Unfortunately for the Celtics, getting stops in the half court was only part of the battle. The Timberwolves started the game with a clear intention of running the break off misses and steals. What quickly became apparent was that the Celtics hadn’t eaten their Wheaties that morning, as the team sluggishly failed to contain fast break after fast break. NBA Stats tracked the Timberwolves as scoring 28.2% of their points off the break in the first quarter, with Edwards being the primary target of those offensive possessions.

“We didn’t start off how we wanted to. That team is really talented, especially offensively. And they put up a bunch of points.” Tatum said, when asked about Boston’s defensive struggles to open the game.

Struggling to contain transition possessions isn’t a new struggle for this Celtics team; They’ve had similar issues dating back to early January when Stevens would speak about the need to “build out to the ball.”

You can live with the type of fast break shown above. Towns leaks out early, and a quick pitch pass finds him in the paint while the Celtics are still getting back on defense.

However, the above transition play is too easy for the Timberwolves. The concept of building out the ball is that the first man back protects the rim, then you build out to the perimeter before switching into defined roles once the transition has broken down. Here, the Celtics are too zoned in on the perimeter, with no one protecting the paint. Juan Hernangomez runs a pretty slip screen and doesn’t face any resistance until he’s essentially airborne - even then, the resistance came from Payton Pritchard, who had to leave his man in the corner to provide some form of rim resistance.

“We’re young, and guys are still learning,” Smart explained while detailing some of the Celtics shortcomings, both early in the game and during the fourth quarter.

Perhaps the Celtics came into the contest expecting a cakewalk from the league’s worst team. Still, the more logical explanation is that the Timberwolves are slowly getting back to full strength following their own health struggles this season, and they came into the contest looking to land some early blows.

Stevens mentioned the Timberwolves struggles post game. “You can fool yourself with their record, but they haven’t had all their guys that much.”

Ultimately, it took Boston until the third quarter to mitigate the stormy first quarter’s damage, as the team adjusted the defense and upped their intensity. As Smart mentioned, this team is still young, and every game provides the youthful core with new challenges that force them to grow and adapt.

In the coming week, a West Coast road trip is going to test this roster’s improved resilience along with their adaptability, starting with Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Sunday at 3 pm EST. Luckily, the Nuggets play at a much slower pace than the Timberwolves, so hopefully there’s less pressure in transition.

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