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Karl-Anthony Towns focused on defense, both on the court and with vaccines

Kurt Helin and Corey Robinson reflect on the Minnesota Timberwolves' hot streak and break down how Karl-Anthony Towns' defensive improvements reflect the team's enhanced intensity.

Karl-Anthony Towns wants to talk defense.

Throughout Towns’ seven-year career, the Timberwolves have been a fixture in the bottom 10 of NBA defenses — and he took his share of the blame for that. Like many big men entering the NBA, defense and the more complex schemes of the NBA didn’t come quickly to him. While he worked to improve, there wasn’t a lot of defensive talent around him picking him up.

This season feels different — the defense is winning the Timberwolves games. While they are 11-12 heading into this week, the Timberwolves had won 7-of-8 before a tough two-game road trip East, and more importantly, they have a top-five defense and a positive net rating (+0.9, using stats).

There are signs the Timberwolves are coming together.

“There’s just a true excitement around our team…" Towns told NBC Sports. “The fans see what the players are providing them, a true identity, a true vision, an actual definition of Timberwolves basketball. I think it also comes from them seeing how selfless our players are being. Willing to sacrifice for each other, wanting to build a culture, accepting the culture.

“There’s a lot of great things happening right now in Minnesota.”

Towns wants to build on the great things that are happening, on and off the court, in Minnesota.

On the court, Minnesota’s stout defense has been one of the surprises of the season. Credit goes to management bringing in more defensive-focused players — Patrick Beverley is at the top of the list, but Jarred Vanderbilt is right there — plus new assistant coach Elston Turner taking over the defense and playing a more aggressive system. It has Towns using his athleticism, switching pick-and-rolls and staying high with the ball rather than dropping back to protect the rim.

“I just think everyone is buying in, everyone is buying into the identity we are trying to build for this team…" Towns said, and he used the word “identity” a lot when discussing what the Timberwolves are doing right. “I think a lot of discipline comes into being a good defensive team and I think we’re having a great discipline about us this year.”

Towns added he’s glad some team hasn’t snapped up Turner as a head coach. Yet.

“ET has been doing an amazing job, just every single day, finding new ways to make us more proficient and efficient with our defense,” Towns said."We are very, very, very, very fortunate to have him on our sidelines.”

Towns isn’t limiting his defensive push to the court.

He has made it his mission to get the word out and get people in Minnesota — and nationally — vaccinated to play defense against the flu and the coronavirus.

Towns has partnered with Walgreens to reach out to people — particularly Black and brown communities, which traditionally see lower vaccination rates — to get people vaccinated against the flu this year.

“What spurred me into this partnership was just Walgreens’ willingness to partner with me in giving back…" Towns said. “I have to be an agent of change. I can’t be on the sidelines talking about change.”

No NBA player has been more outspoken in favor of vaccines — particularly for COVID — than Towns, who lost his mother and several other family members to the pandemic.

“I’ve gotten the vaccine, as a matter of fact I’ve also gotten the booster as well,” Towns told NBC Sports this week. “I am a fan of the vaccines having seen what COVID has done to my family and to me personally. I can’t stress enough for people to mask up, be safe, and to get your body prepared for the world we live in right now.

“It comes from a place, I don’t want people to go through what I went through.”

Towns admitted all the loss around him robbed him of the joy of playing basketball for a while, but the return of that joy is evident in watching Towns play now.

He’s playing at an All-NBA level to open the season. He looks more comfortable in this defensive system, and he remains an elite offensive force — 24 points and nine rebounds a game.

Plenty of Timberwolves fans and observers would like to see those numbers higher because Towns gets more touches in the clutch. Too often, in a tight game, the ball never goes through Towns, with other players settling into isolation rather than involving the team’s existing superstar.

Towns will take those shots, but it’s in his nature to play a team game.

“The game will tell us who the person with the ball should be and who is going to take the shot…" Towns told NBC Sports. “I’m more than, more than willing to take that clutch shot if anything. I feel confident I’m going to hit it almost every time.”

So should Towns demand the ball more, or facilitate and let his teammates get those touches and shots?

“I think there’s an argument for both,” Towns said. “I will make the argument to say that many believe I could be more selfish, taking more shots, but for the record, the [recent] winning streak speaks for itself. Everyone’s involved, everyone’s playing really good basketball right now, we’re playing really great team basketball, and that’s how you’re going to win in this league. It doesn’t come from one player having big stats and you get a win, I can be a testament of that, I’ve done that in my career and it never translated to wins.”

The Timberwolves are winning more now and Towns likes that change. Now he wants to build on it.