Game 2 of the NBA Playoffs may not have produced the Minnesota Timberwolves’ desired final outcome, but the way Rudy Gobert’s two-way play helped effect a tidal wave that nearly washed away the Denver Nuggets should inspire hope heading into a Game 3 back home in Minneapolis.
A Clear Game Plan
Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch made it very clear in the opening stage of Game 2 that Gobert was a more central part of the team’s offensive attack. Minnesota ran pick-and-roll (PnR) early and often as a means of forcing Nikola Jokić — a poor interior defender — to both defend in space and against the 7-foot-1 Frenchman barreling down the lane to pressure the rim.
Denver expected Minnesota would increase its PnR frequency, so they made PnR coverage a key part of its defensive game plan. Nuggets Head Coach Michael Malone played Jokić closer to the level of the screen (hello to our old friend, the high wall!) to protect the Joker from Gobert rolling down at him.
In the first clip, Gobert sets a wide pin-down screen for Taurean Prince, who then flows into PnR with Gobert. Prince does a great job syncing his first step to the basket with Gobert’s explosion to the rim, and Gordon has no choice but to foul.
Shortly thereafter, Denver tries to ice a ball screen for Anthony Edwards in order to prevent him from driving to the rim. But Edwards is too quick for Jokić, so Ant finds Gobert with a great wrap-around pass on the interior.
While Denver’s ice scheme can help prevent penetration from Edwards in theory, the execution needs to be nearly flawless at the point of the screen. This is because Edwards is 1) fast enough to get around Jokić entirely, 2) athletic enough to hit cross-court jump passes if the back line pre-rotates, and 3) creative enough find Gobert from multiple angles. Not to mention it forces Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. to rotate properly and defend someone as strong and as physical as Gobert at the rim. As a result, both found themselves in foul trouble in Game 2. That will be a great recipe for setting the tone with physicality again in Game 3.
Gobert only got a couple of really good looks at the rim (when he wasn’t fouled) out of PnR as a rolling big, but that shouldn’t stop the Wolves from continuing to go to the well at home, when the officiating should more heavily favor Gobert when he sees defenders at the rim.
A Non-Traditional Way of Finding Gobert
Finch also deserves credit for the way that he’s able to create opportunities for Gobert to score inside out of non-traditional PnR sets. We saw these “V passes” (or whatever you want to call them) earlier in the season as a core part of the Kyle Anderson’s role in the Wolves’ late-game offense. But they are a great way to manipulate the low-man on the back-side of the defense.
Here, Edwards comes off a stack pin-down from the two bigs, as Gobert rolls to the rim while Karl-Anthony Towns spaces. Instead of sharply turning a corner and attacking Jokić, Edwards makes the extra pass to Mike Conley, who attacks an out-of-position Jamal Murray on the close-out and gets an easy lob for Gobert.
Then, Gobert initiates a dribble hand-off (DHO) and roll. Because Gordon is guarding Conley, the small point guard understands he won’t fit a pass over Gordon’s arms, so he re-directs the play to Slow-Mo in the corner to draw Jeff Green (the low-man) away from Gobert. Anderson attacks knowing that Gordon won’t rotate back to Gobert, and finds his big man for an easy dunk.
Gobert... the Creator?
The area Gobert has grown the most in this season is undoubtedly his passing. Gobert more than doubled his assisting post-All-Star (2.1 per game) from pre-All-Star (0.9). While hand-offs have been a key part of that jump, he also has incorporated some good short-roll passing into his game as well.
With how aggressively the Nuggets are showing and icing on Edwards in the two-man game, the best thing Ant can do if there’s no driving lane is get off the ball early and trust his teammates to do the rest. He did this quite a bit with Towns to great success last year late in the season and into the playoffs. While Gobert doesn’t have anywhere near the same skillset as Towns when he catches at the nail, his ability to make reads and passes like this are steadily improving over time.
As his short-roll game continues to evolve, the Wolves can keep hammering Gobert’s dominance in the hand-off game in the meantime. No one in the league is better at using his body to create an advantage for a guard in DHO situations than Gobert is; while players like Domantas Sabonis and Draymond Green (and Naz Reid!) are excellent at faking and exploding to the rim out of a DHO, a skill Gobert doesn’t have, he has them beat with his positioning and space creation.
Gobert has a clear chemistry with Conley in the hand-off game and it’s the cleanest way to generate 3-point looks for the sage leader of the team, who is shooting 42.0% from deep since joining the Wolves at the trade deadline. Beyond Conley, Gobert is doing an excellent job of creating space for Edwards off of DHOs, too. In this last clip below, watch how Gobert is able to fend off the close-out after handing it off; it’s extremely difficult to successfully do that without fouling, but Gobert does it consistently.
Far too many people think that all Gobert does offensively is clog up the floor and make life more difficult for everyone else. Since Reid got hurt, a good amount of the team’s best offensive “flow” has come with Gobert on the floor because of the way that he opens up passing lanes and, as a result, scrambling situations for the defense. That matters even more when a team is deploying a high wall or at-the-level PnR defensive scheme.
In the first clip, the threat of Gobert rolling brings Bruce Brown out of the corner and into the middle of the lane. Edwards sees that, as does Jaylen Nowell, so Nowell takes a step toward the rim and catches the pass in motion to get behind the back line of defenders for a tough finish.
Then, in the second clip, Gobert completely destroys the spacing of the Nuggets defense. As you can see in the screenshot, All five Denver defenders are either in the paint or a foot away from it. This opens up the opportunity for skip passes that send the defense into scramble mode and ultimately result in good looks if the offensive process is sound after the skip.
Gobert’s roll gravity is something that doesn’t show up in the box score but is a huge reason why those Utah Jazz teams obliterated their opponents’ defense for years. They surrounded Gobert with players who could shoot 3s, play off the catch and make simple reads to find the open player. The Wolves’ aggressive defense stood no chance against them because defending spread pick-and-roll requires good discipline, timing and rim protection — things Minnesota was inconsistent with.
The Timberwolves missed plenty of looks in Game 2 that Gobert’s gravity opened up. Many of them involve baseline drives and passes, which has created the Wolves’ best offensive flow. Playing out of the corner will again be essential in not only activating #DownhillAnt but also manufacturing good 3-point looks for Towns.
The Key That Can Unlock Anthony Edwards
Perhaps the most under-marketed aspect of Gobert’s game is his prolific screen-setting. Even when he isn’t drawing fouls after catching the ball on the roll, he can still draw fouls at the level of the screen because he has excellent technique. Here, Rudy sees that Conley is still too high for him to release to the rim, so he waits for Conley to take his first step toward the basket before beginning his role. Porter Jr. gets caught fighting over and gets hit with the foul.
With that said, Gobert’s screen-setting was most impactful doing what he’s done all year: Create a runway for Edwards to take off. By far the best way to get Edwards going to the rim right at Jokić or Green was to give him a high ball screen or DHO from Gobert.
Even though Edwards didn’t score, get fouled, or look to do either of those things on his attacks, he made good decisions with the ball in his hands on the drive and committed only one turnover because of it.
Edwards is the only player on the team capable of putting the Nuggets defense on its heels every time he touches the ball, and Finch needs to continue leaning into that in Game 3. It’s just a bummer the team didn’t do so sooner in Game 2.
Beyond his ability to morph into a launch pad for Edwards, Gobert is excellent at timing screens as Edwards is catching the ball to produce open 3-point looks. Getting an easy one for Ant early in the game will be important, as we all know the value of Ant seeing his first few shots go down.
Finch made the decision to once again put Towns on Jokić to start the game in an effort to keep KAT out of a chaser role as much as possible. While I understand the value in trying to protect Towns from getting beat in space, at a certain point you need to give your best defensive player a shot at guarding a two-time MVP. After seeing Gobert give a few good reps late in the second quarter, Finch gave Gobert the green light to guard Jokić at the start the second half and it completely changed the complexion of the game.
Minnesota already had some momentum at this point, but clamping Jokić on a right block post-up and the resulting Edwards score forced a Denver timeout and injected belief into a Wolves team that desperately needed it.
With his team already on a 10-0 run, Gobert did it again a minute later.
And finally, Gobert smartly defends with active hands, forcing a turnover on a Jokić isolation from the top of the key. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year held Jokić to 15 points on 7/13 shooting (53.8%), well below his 63.2% mark on the season, and committed just one shooting foul.
All of that resulted in a noticeably agitated Jokić, who started throwing elbows like crazy late in the third quarter and into the final frame. Two-time MVP or not, there’s no place for that in the game, and he shouldn’t see the same level of leniency from the officials as the series shifts to Minnesota. It’s reckless, dangerous, and a great way to injure opposing big men. Jokić is known for throwing a temper tantrum or two when things aren’t going his way offensively, and those are often laced with extra physicality like we saw in Game 2.
We hear about the value of getting under Towns’ skin all the time, but the same is true for Jokić. He can take himself out of the game with how much he complains to officials and lets his emotions boil over into his play. Putting Gobert on Jokić at the start of Game 3 is the Wolves’ best bet at bringing that emotion into play and turning it against Joker and the Nuggets.
A key part of that strategy, though, is something that went largely unnoticed in Game 2. If Gobert is going to be defending more shots in near the basket and in the mid-range, that will make Towns’ defensive rebounding even more crucial. Despite his poor play offensively in the first two games of the series, KAT’s defensive rebounding has been sound. Towns is leading the Wolves with 20 defensive rebounds through the first two games of the series, and pulled down several defensive boards while Gobert was influencing bad shots in the third quarter of Game 2. Once he secures the misses, he can either utilize his excellent outlet passing or grab it and sprint up the floor in transition; keep an eye on Towns for those patented trailer 3s he loves, too.
Putting Gobert on Jokić and trusting Towns to clean the glass and lead transition run-outs was a big part of the Wolves’ turnaround in Game 2 and will be the best way to activate the two bigs pairing defensively in a pivotal Game 3.