Plenty of attention has been paid to Rudy Gobert’s role in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ suddenly stagnant early-season offense. But the backcourt’s issues with producing consistent offensive results, despite major talent, has played just as much of a role and is an area the Wolves need to address.
Both D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards scored season-highs in the team’s last two games on great efficiency while adding playmaking value. Let’s look at what worked so well and what the Wolves can learn from it — aside from “It’s helpful to play teams decimated by injuries.”
D’Angelo Russell at Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday
30 points, 11 assists, 2 TOs, 11-13 FG, 4-5 3P, 4-6 FT (stats from ESPN.com)
The biggest issue for Russell this season has been a lethargic nature on the court. He’s naturally deliberate, which is fine, but too often this year it has crossed over into apathy.
Against the Cavs, though, Minnesota ran sets that put pep into Russell’s step. They got him moving into catches and actions, setting the defense behind by a half-step and often encouraging momentum toward the rim.
Creating energy within the offense helped D-Lo get into rhythm much better than his usual diet of methodical pull-ups, and that flow carried over to tougher shots once he had the hot hand.
Russell also deserves credit for creating his own zip by looking for early offense. He sought out opportunities to push the pace and attack Cleveland’s defense before it got set, whether it was for his own buckets or his teammates’.
Unlocking that dynamic passing was just as important to Minnesota’s offense as Russell’s scoring. The Wolves’ spacing around the 3-point line has been solid in general this season, but it helped that players were actually knocking down 3s and that Russell made his pick-and-roll reads with a little more conviction. Taurean Prince continuing to be money from the corners helps, too.
Gobert cleanly securing catches as a roller and finishing plays was another welcome sight.
Gobert doesn’t necessarily have to drive and finish and-ones from the top of the key, as he does in the second clip above, to give Minnesota’s attack a major boost. Just catching in traffic and finishing strong, as he does in the first play, will be an upgrade on the sloppiness of the first month of the season.
Anthony Edwards at Orlando Magic on Wednesday
35 points, 6 assists, 1 TO, 12-20 FG, 7-13 3P, 4-7 FT (stats from ESPN.com)
When Edwards has gotten into trouble this year, it has either been because he was drifting through the game without leaving his mark or trying to take too many tough, hero-ball shots at the wrong times. He did neither in Orlando.
Early on, Edwards mostly stuck to simple jumpers off either the catch or one dribble, scoring 14 of his 22 first-half points on such shots.
For a player known primarily for his slashing ability, Edwards looked very comfortable navigating into space on off-ball screens and rising up for his jumper. He’s a dangerous shooter when he isn’t reliant on tough, isolation pull-ups.
Later on, he was able to attack the rim and go deeper into his bag because he had shown the defense it had to respect the simple shooting threat. That opened up lanes to get other kinds of shots off, whether he was cutting off-ball or sizing up his man with it.
Where Edwards really showed off his one-on-one craft was on switches against bigs. Instead of settling, he repeatedly took advantage of his speed edge to get to the basket and draw contact, an especially smart move against a thin Magic squad.
Ant wasn’t just gunning for his shots, either. The theme of his six assists was finding his teammates who — because of his gravity — had space around the perimeter and timing his passes so they could attack those openings or use them to launch a shot. Yes, it’s a simple concept, but Edwards’ talent is such that making the easy reads is enough when combined with his scoring talent.
The challenge for the Wolves with getting these results consistently is that Russell and Edwards need almost opposite pushes. Russell needs to be encouraged to play with more energy, while Edwards needs to be encouraged to keep things simple and take what the defense gives him.
Chris Finch’s offense is more about flow than set plays, though, which means there isn’t as much ingrained control to target what each guy needs. Striking that balance is crucial to the Wolves turning a couple of good offensive games into the foundation of a dangerous attack.
Still, there are similarities in the performances that Finch should continue to emphasize as best practices for both Russell and Edwards. Both got to work with their areas of focus right away; Russell scored 15 points and didn’t miss a shot while Edwards put up 19 with five-of-eight 3-point shooting in their respective big first quarters.
In addition, both players got to the line more than usual. Russell went five-of-six from the charity stripe (he averages 3.0 FTA per game per Basketball-Reference), and Edwards went four-of-seven (4.1 FTA per game).
The next step is figuring out how to get these two playing at a high level at the same time in the same game rather than trading off — Edwards scored 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting vs. Cleveland, Russell scored 11 on 5-of-12 vs. Orlando and neither took a free throw in their respective off-nights. That’s been a problem going back to last season, though, and Finch and Co. will take the baby steps forward as the offense continues to feel its way toward competence.