Rudy Gobert made his long-awaited Minnesota Timberwolves debut on Wednesday night and didn’t waste any time before making his presence felt against a center-less Oklahoma City Thunder squad set to headline the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.
As I wrote in the preview, I expected Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell to look for their new All-Star teammate early and often after they force fed Gobert to the tune of 16 points on six shots and 10 free throw attempts in Friday’s preseason finale against the Brooklyn Nets.
Between Towns, Russell and head coach Chris Finch, all three central figures made it clear during the preseason they believe the Utah Jazz underutilized the three-time Defensive Player of the Year offensively. They backed up that talk on Wednesday night; Gobert scored six points on five field goal attempts before any of his teammates got two shots up.
The way Gobert’s strong rim gravity collapsed the Thunder defense created driving lanes for Towns, Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, all of whom did a fabulous job of moving ball to force Oklahoma City defenders into scramble situations. That eased some spacing concerns the Wolves’ starting group raised their last time out.
As a result, Minnesota scored 35 points on 54% shooting in the opening frame, despite shooting just 3/9 from downtown and turning it over four times. Towns shifting to the 5 upon Gobert’s first stint served as a boon for that offensive efficiency. He shared the ball wonderfully, tallying five assists in the first 10:20 of the game with a dominant playmaking ability he projects to grow this season.
Towns continued his strong play early in the second. The three-time All-Star faced a double-team from the baseline on every post touch while playing the 5; on his first post touch, Towns sensed the double and made a rocket pass to the opposite slot for a Taurean Prince 3 that capped off an 11-point, 4/4 shooting quarter for the trusted Wolves’ veteran role player.
Wolves fans also got a taste of what they came to see: the Towns/Gobert chemistry.
The Wolves rode the momentum into the half with a 65-52 lead, as Gobert led all scorers at the break with an efficient 13 points and eight rebounds to match.
After a short run that extended the Minnesota lead out to 16 behind strong ball movement and jump shooting, adversity struck.
Oklahoma City head coach Mark Daigneault wanted to shut off Towns’ impact as a driver. So, he looked down his bench and called upon two-way player Eugene Omoruyi — a 6-foot-6, 235-pound forward — to get into KAT on the perimeter. Omoruyi bothered Towns with his physicality, giving the Wolves’ star no room to make any moves and get by him; when Towns received the ball, he spent five-to-seven seconds searching for a solution, only to try and do too much on the drive on multiple occasions.
From there on, the ball movement stagnated, pick-and-roll (PnR) actions became less frequent, and Minnesota took poor shots while lacking any semblance of pace or offensive flow. The Timberwolves didn’t get into their offense as early as they did in the first half, meaning less Gobert screens.
“I think that’s probably a really good way to say it,” Finch told Canis Hoopus postgame. “I think I saw Rudy drifting up the floor a little bit (towards the basket). We try to duck in a lot against their size, which can be useful, but I think we closed down some of our driving lanes by doing it.”
Consequently, Edwards’ tough shooting night (4/17 FG) only got worse, and Finch’s crew turned it over six times after a clean second quarter. Those giveaways ignited the Thunder’s transition offense, to which Minnesota offered minimal resistance despite not crashing the offensive glass; OKC went on to win the fast-break battle 17-10.
On the other end of the floor, the Wolves’ perimeter defense crumbled. Thunder star point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander consistently beat perimeter defenders off the dribble, which forced Minnesota’s defense out of rotation, opening driving lanes and kick-out looks for 3.
To make matters worse for Minnesota, SGA’s activity also sent Edwards to the bench with four fouls in the midst of a monster 26-5 Thunder run. Without Edwards on the floor, the Wolves tried putting Prince, McDaniels, Russell and Kyle Anderson on the dynamic OKC playmaker, but none found any success in slowing him down.
Gilgeous-Alexander played the entire quarter and accounted for 17 of his team’s 35 points in the frame, but undoubtedly unlocked even more scoring with the pressure he put on the defense. Not only did he nearly single-handedly erase a 16-point Wolves lead, but he also helped the Thunder build a six-point lead, 87-81, before the end of the quarter.
The primary concern in the wake of Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt departing in the Gobert trade was the absence of players who could flip the game with their energy and physicality; the Wolves’ legitimized that concern in the third. So, who needs to step up in that department?
“Jaden, Karl, Rudy, Anthony, D’Angelo, Kyle, Jordan, Jaylen, Taurean,” Finch said postgame.
They all have the capability to do it, although not with the same fervor those two brought.
“They got to do it. If we want to go anywhere, we got to do it,” Finch added. “So, it’s about making yourselves uncomfortable and putting your body on the line.”
And the Timberwolves got it, from three of the quietest players on the roster.
Jaylen Nowell hit a monster 3 to break up an SGA scoring barrage and retake an 81-79 lead, before McDaniels and Gobert responded to an 8-0 Thunder run by tag teaming a 6-0 run of their own to tie things up headed into the final quarter. Gobert provided the exclamation point with an incredible defensive play surpassed only by a wild H.O.R.S.E. shot.
You can cross Rudy Gobert saving the Wolves with a 14-foot floater at the 3Q buzzer off your bingo card— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) October 20, 2022
The unsung trio carried that energy into the fourth, welcoming Russell into the fold when Edwards exited after Ant’s fifth foul at the 10:23 mark. They generated a 5-0 run before going on to either score or assist on the team’s next nine points and, in turn, revive both momentum and the home crowd’s energy. Russell got things organized, while Nowell and McDaniels made quick, decisive passing reads that opened things up at the rim, and Gobert finished well inside.
Impossible to overstate what Jaylen Nowell has done for this Wolves team tonight.— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) October 20, 2022
He's been the team's best source of transition offense, hit a major 3 to retake the lead in the 3Q, and now has a bucket and an incredible assist to Gobert for an and-1.pic.twitter.com/Es6YLlMQrT
Whether it’s by breathing confidence into the offense with his one-on-one scoring, getting the ball to the hot hand, or knocking down open shots off the catch, Nowell is a powerful weapon that will certainly be relied upon to insert himself like he did Wednesday.
“[His aggression is] gonna be really, really, really important. Every team needs an X-factor. Jaylen has a lot of game,” Finch told CH postgame. “He can score, he can create his own. He can pass it, he can shoot it, he can finish, create, he gets to the free-throw line.”
No matter what is asked of him offensively, he seemingly always delivers. Tonight, Nowell did so in the form of 13 points and a pair of crucial second-half dimes.
“He’s a guy that’s just all about opportunity. Once he gets an opportunity he shows who he is every time. There’s not been a time since I met him where he’s gotten an opportunity and he hasn’t taken advantage of it,” Russell said to Canis postgame. “ I think he’s going to have a huge year.”
As for McDaniels, his ability to attack and pressure the defense with and without the ball played a major role in the fourth; normally a low-usage player, he accounted for 10 of Minnesota’s 28 points in the frame and made several plays to infuse energy into a crowd that was on edge.
“Not one play was drawn up for him. For him to dominate the game the way he did, guard the best player and dominate the game offensively, deflections and rebounds and things like that, I big up my teammates all the time,” Russell said of McDaniels’ performance. “He’s going to have a hell of a career, hell of a season and he’s just scratching the surface.”
McDaniels finished with 19 points, smashed career-highs in both free throws made (nine) and attempted (10), and also added six boards, three dimes (all in the fourth) and five stocks, and recorded team bests in plus-minus (+14) and minutes (36).
While OKC made its run, you could feel fans in the arena start to get flashbacks to the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs, throughout which Minnesota struggled to hold onto leads in spectacular fashion.
Gobert wasn’t part of that, but went through it early in his career with the Jazz. Through that, he learned how he can be a calming force when the game gets hectic and the walls close in.
“I think a lot of this comes with just experience and then learning how to win,” Gobert told Canis Hoopus. “My early years, we were trying to figure out how to finish games, how to keep a lead, and things like that. it’s just mostly feeling the game [out] and knowing that it’s a game of runs and when the team makes run, you gotta settle down a bit.”
Despite a lack of experience going through the fire with his current teammates, that doesn’t mean the philosophy for coming out the other side victorious will be any different.
“Offensively, run something that you know, you’re pretty comfortable running. You know, you get a good shot or you put pressure on the defense,” Gobert continued. “And then defensively, the same. Keep communicating, keep settling down, and usually good things happen. I thought we did a pretty good job.”
Gobert and Russell proved tonight their collective presence on the floor can permeate a calmness on the floor. That will be of utmost importance moving forward on nights when Towns isn’t scoring at levels we all know he can.
D-Lo played with pace and got the team into offense early, enabling the three-time All-NBA center to make a greater impact as a screener (and subsequently as a scorer inside), and made big shots when needed en route to a 10-point quarter.
Meanwhile, the six-time All-Defensive Team selection contested shot after shot at the rim on the other end, making life hell for Thunder guards and forwards alike when trying to attack the teeth of the Wolves’ defense. Offensively, Gobert grabbed three offensive rebounds in the final frame — scoring put-backs on two of them — and maintained an impactful activity level as a screener to will his new team to a win in his debut.
The Stifle Tower poured in a team-high 23 points on 10/15 shooting, grabbed a team-high 16 rebounds, and registered a +13 across 34 minutes.
Minnesota struggled with long rebounds, allowing 16 offensive rebounds that turned into 22 Thunder second chance points, didn’t capitalize on turnovers as well as OKC did, and shot just 26.3% from 3, yet still found a way to win.
While there are pressing weak points Minnesota can shore up (turnovers, transition defense and corner 3-point defense), the most important takeaway is that a new-look ball club overcame some adversity and learned about one another in the process.
It’s a good thing there are no pictures in the standings, because they wouldn’t have been too flattering tonight.
But, the Minnesota Timberwolves are 1-0 and are beginning to understand with real reps how Rudy Gobert drives winning. At the end of the day, that’s what matters at this stage of the season.
The Timberwolves are back in action at Target Center against the 1-0 Utah Jazz on Friday night, when they will face off with traded Wolves Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and Walker Kessler, and Rudy Gobert will battle his former squad. Utah defeated the Denver Nuggets 123-102 in their season opener on Wednesday night.
You can catch the 7:10 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North.