An NBA basketball court is 4,700 square feet. Throughout the history of the game, much of that space has not been strategically utilized. As the three-pointer has exploded in relevance over the past decade, the Area Of Strategy has expanded much further from the painted area, but still—the middle of the basketball rectangle and the slow-walking, start-of-possession section before that have mostly functioned as staging zones; gentleman’s areas, where one is allowed to take a breath as they re-set for where the real effort and thinking takes place, a few dozen feet forward.

These parameters change, but only in times of panic. Full-court press and the resulting end-to-end offense are desperate, dramatic comeback territory, and the risks of this style are well-understood: in the NBA, unlike college or high school ball, there are always world-class dribblers, passers, and finishers around, who will make you pay for trying to cover too many of those 4,700 units. You’re better off, most of the time, focusing on about 2,000 of them. Unless you’re the 2023-24 Minnesota Timberwolves.

Their defensive effort Monday night, against the defending champion Denver Nuggets, was a transformative sight. In what appeared to be an effort to become one with their team name, their seven primary rotation players swarmed, smashed, hounded, snarled, took, and destroyed for 24 straight minutes to start the game. Not an inch of the court was safe. They were great in the second half, too, but that wasn’t necessary after establishing a 61-35 halftime lead, having made one of the greatest offenses in the game’s history look like toddler time.

It would be wrong to say this was just a really impressive half of team basketball. It was an atomic bomb; the kind of effort that is fair to use as framework for a total recontextualization of the league today. Any other organization in the league could fairly watch it and wonder: “what the hell have we been doing this whole time?” The Nuggets, a near-consensus pick to repeat as champions, now look like beneficiaries of dead pleasantries. With their fountain of free comfort shut off by these beasts from the woods, they are a pitiful sight, whinging to referees about how quickly the earth beneath them has turned to shaking.

Up 2-0, the question is: how long can the Wolves keep this up? They don’t look tired or challenged, right now, so there’s no end in sight. They are thriving as they seize on recently revised officiating prerogatives. Since this year’s All-Star Break, there has been a clear directive to allow the game to be played more physically. At first this was a matter of suspicion, but right before the playoffs, Commissioner Adam Silver confirmed it. The whole league is getting away with more roughness, but no one’s efforts look as calculated to capitalize on the change as the Wolves.

But it would be unfair to Minnesota to circumscribe their success to only their size, and how it’s become especially advantageous during this paradigm shift. They have bloomed in a large number of ways this season, and particularly over the past few weeks. Anthony Edwards, potentially the best player alive at this moment, has basically no weakness in his game when he lasers into his jump shot, and in the playoffs he has 55/42/82 shooting splits. Karl-Anthony Towns, long a dubious postseason entity doomed to reckless foul trouble, looks like a killer as well. Naz Reid has broken into the 75th percentile of NBA big men, at worst, and he comes off the bench. Nickeil Alexander-Walker has late-bloomed into one of the scariest point-of-attack defenders there is; one of the other ones is his teammate, Jaden McDaniels. 

When so many things go right for a team at the same time, a feeling of destiny starts to take hold. That is, perhaps, what the Wolves were feeling as they trusted each other to cover big gaps while they ran the Nuggets ragged, over each of those 4,700 squares. Nikola Jokic, the most ingenious passer in the sport, found no opportunistic cracks to throw the ball into. When the Nuggets even got the ball near the rim—a rare occasion—it wasn’t as if the Wolves weren’t there, despite having been everywhere else seconds before. Going into the night, Jokic had mastered all known schematic standards, but that didn’t matter, because a wholly new level of NBA basketball was born before him. He’s about to win his third MVP, and go back into battle with the group he took home a championship with a year ago. But it will take everything they have just not to get swept.