The Minnesota Timberwolves made it a point to play through Rudy Gobert against a short-handed Los Angeles Clippers team playing without their top two players — Kawhi Leonard (knee) and Paul George (hamstring) — on the second night of a back-to-back after getting shellacked by the Denver Nuggets 122-91 last night.
Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch drew up the opening play of the game to result in a Gobert post up across the lane at the front of the rim. His team executed the action perfectly and it resulted in two made free throws for the 7-foot-1 Frenchman.
Gobert carried a business-like demeanor emotionally after a strong star, but you could tell he was focused on physically stamping his imprint on the game from the jump. Given his history with the Clippers, it makes sense that Gobert would have more juice for this one, too.
The three-time All-Star’s activity was off the charts on both ends of the floor early. He grabbed a contested rebound on the other end, drew a foul (and subsequent technical foul) on Marcus Morris Sr., affected a Terance Mann shot and grabbed another rebound, and then threw down his first of many lob dunks off a feed from Kyle Anderson. Just like that, the Wolves had a 9-2 lead and Clippers Head Coach Ty Lue had to burn his first timeout because Gobert had Target Center jumping just 1:43 into the game.
The tone Gobert put the Los Angeles defense on its heels. They became so concerned with the threat the four-time All-NBA selection posed that his teammates had an easier time attacking mismatches in single coverage off the bounce without back line coming. D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards and Anderson all had nice takes to the rim with finishes in the paint. Better yet, those three and Jaden McDaniels played fantastic perimeter defense around Gobert, enabling the three-time Defensive Player of the Year to focus on what he does best — alter shots.
Terrific two-way play from the first unit had Minnesota ahead 23-13 before Gobert went to the bench. The team’s overall play slipped for the rest of the quarter, as it was evident that Naz Reid (who was fighting through back spasms and left the game early) wasn’t able to attack the rim with quite as much power, grace and touch we’ve become accustomed to seeing from him, or battle inside for rebounds as well.
Luckily for the Wolves, who held a four-point lead after 12 minutes, Gobert re-entered to the second quarter. After a stretch of struggling corral bounce passes and rebounds in the first couple minutes, Gobert became the monstrous Rudy Gobert for whom the Minnesota front office was excited to give up five first-round picks and four rotation players.
Most notably, Gobert put down three lobs (one from Anderson and two from McDaniels) to give him four for the half, and was a force on the offensive boards, grabbing three rebounds on that end.
“I think a lot of it is just me playing with more force than I’ve done earlier in the season. A lot of it is the way we play by moving the ball. Those last three games, I think the best stretch we’ve had just moving it and sharing it,” Gobert told Canis Hoopus postgame. “That’s a team that we want to be and when we play that way, everyone shines. It’s really, really tough to guard.”
That ball movement led to Gobert not only catching the ball above the rim and throwing it down, but also in open space, where he appeared much more confident putting the ball on the deck to drive at Clippers center Ivica Zubac and against switches.
The Wolves struggled to pull away in the second largely because they couldn’t close out possessions with rebounds. Gobert fought hard to contest shots and force misses, but Minnesota guards combined for just three boards in the frame. As a result, Finch went away from Russell, Jaylen Nowell and Austin Rivers in the back half of the quarter, opting for Edwards, McDaniels, Taurean Prince, Anderson and Gobert to close the final 4:12 of the half.
That turned out to be a home run decision from Chris Finch. The group moved the ball extremely well, turned it over just once, played excellent defense and closed the half on a 13-5 run to take a 64-50 lead into the locker room.
“The way we closed the half is pretty much when we won the game, getting stops and getting out a little bit,” Finch explained postgame.
Much of that had to do with Gobert, who scored seven points on 3/3 shooting, grabbed five rebounds and sent back a reverse dunk attempt from Mann, the architect of the Clippers’ historic comeback in Game 6 against the Utah Jazz in the 2021 Playoffs.
That had to have felt just incredible for Gobert, who utterly dominated every aspect of the game in the second period. Finch kept Gobert out there for the entire quarter (normally he subs out around the 8:00 mark and re-enters around the 4:00 mark, and Gobert responded with 11 points and seven rebounds to give him 19 points on 8/9 shooting.
This is the Rudy Gobert that Minnesota hoped they'd get after sending five picks and four rotation guys for.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) January 7, 2023
Absolutely dominating the paint on both ends of the floor in the 1H:
• 19 points on 8/9 FG
• 9 rebounds
• 1 blockpic.twitter.com/HY62DvuaA2
Anderson played fantastic minutes as well, insulating Gobert with stout defense at all three levels of the floor and terrific connective playmaking that tied the entire offense together.
“Kyle is like a safety blanket out there when you need, you put the ball in his hands you know you’re going to get something good. He and Rudy have a good combination going there at the elbows. A lot of ... creativity,” Finch said postgame. “Called some plays to try to direct the ball into his hands. And it’s something we want him to do more and more anyway.”
In doing so, Finch put the ball in the hands of a player who understands what this team’s offense needs in order to thrive.
“Just getting it to our guys in the right situation or in the right spot or, you know, keeping the offense flowing and moving ... having multiple people touch the ball,” Anderson explained.
He was also a fan of the length defensive potential of the the lineup that closed the first half.
“Yeah, that’s special. Being able to switch with Ant, being able to switch with Jaden, Lo, Rudy, that’s special. You can switch on to a guy with knowing that the next guy that comes up to the guard the ball is gonna get a stop, wants to get a stop.”
That type of energy carried over into the third quarter.
Edwards dimed up Russell and McDaniels on consecutive possessions while Rudy Gobert affected every shot that Los Angeles put up in the first 2:30 of play. Very quickly, Minnesota held a 74-55 lead.
“We did a good job in the third. We won the third, there was… no easy buckets; Rudy, I think, affected their first four shots of the third quarter,” Finch explained. “And we didn’t give any real ground back there, which as you know has been a problem for us.”
The third quarter peaked when Gobert put up a
baby hook shot perfect left-handed lob off the glass to Jaden McDaniels for a huge throw-down and glass slap to cap off an 19-12 sprint out of the gate for Minnesota.
Unfortunately, it counted as a shot attempt for Gobert, who became the fourth player in Timberwolves franchise history to record at least 25 points, 20 rebounds and three blocks in a game. Gobert joined Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett (6), Karl-Anthony Towns (1) and Kevin Love (1).
Monster effort from Rudy Gobert in his best game as a Wolf:— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) January 7, 2023
✅ 25 points
✅ 11/15 FG | 3/5 FT
✅ 21 rebounds
✅ 3 blocks
✅ +31 in game-high 36 minutes
✅ W over the Clipperspic.twitter.com/tRZmydGoHo
But just before that, Edwards asked to be subbed out of the game and went straight back to the locker room for the rest of the night, due to soreness in the same left hip he fell on late in last week’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Edwards was in good spirits in the locker room after the game and was not moving gingerly. While Edwards is a notoriously competitive player who hates missing games, Minnesota plays on the road against the two worst teams in the NBA this upcoming week — the Houston Rockets on Sunday and the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday — so if there was ever a time for him to get a week off, it’s this upcoming two-game set. The Wolves return home for three games in four days beginning Friday against the Phoenix Suns sans Devin Booker (groin).
Shortly after the McDaniels dunk, Finch took out Russell, Anderson and Gobert and things began to crater a bit. If not for a pair of big scores from Reid before the Los Angeles avalanche began, Minnesota may have been in some trouble.
After Mann got lose for five consecutive points, Norman Powell scored two of his team-high 21 points, and Morris Sr. added a 3, the Clippers clawed back within 13, prompting a Finch timeout. Just like he did in the first half, Finch re-inserted Gobert to put a stop to it.
Minnesota closed the final 1:19 of the quarter on an 8-0 run to take a 100-79 lead into the fourth quarter, where the Wolves turned on cruise control to the finish line.
Notably, McDaniels continued his stellar play of late. The third-year swing man added nine points on four shots, grabbed a rebound and blocked a shot across 6:51 of play in the frame, which was crucial to keeping the Clippers beyond an arm’s reach. As the Timberwolves’ contagious ball movement continues to permeate the entire lineup, McDaniels has been one of the biggest beneficiaries.
The former first-round pick is averaging 14.5 points on 64.7% FG / 66.7% 3PT / 71.4% FT shooting splits, 3.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 0.5 steals across 26 minutes per game this month, including two games of at least 10 shot attempts. McDaniels looks more comfortable than he’s ever been at the NBA level and Finch loves it.
“I think he’s always had great feel. For the most part he takes good shots. that’s never really been an issue. What I like now is he’s making pretty quick decisions when he’s catching the ball,” Finch said. “But a lot of that has been, because he’s been able to polish up his skills, that stuff comes through now. So, it’s a credit to him, and (Director of Player Development) Joe Boylan, and everybody who’s worked with him. He has a lot of skills, he’s just polishing ‘em up a little bit across the board.”
The more that McDaniels can contribute within the flow of the offense, the lighter the load is for Edwards to carry without Towns for the foreseeable future, and the better the Wolves will be.
But the key to the Timberwolves surviving Towns’ extended absence and positioning themselves for a run into the top six of the Western Conference after the All-Star break is maximizing the impact Rudy Gobert makes. Since the players-only meeting last Saturday night, Gobert has been the most dominant version of himself in a Wolves jersey.
“He controlled the paint. We found him a ton. Great game, great game by him obviously. Plus-31, 21 rebounds, 25 points,” Finch said postgame. “All credit to his teammates, they really did a good job of finding him tonight. He did a really, really good job of swarming the paint.”
Game-by-game, he and his teammates are playing harder, unlocking more of what’s possible, and bringing fans along for the ride as they push to exceed the highest expectations for a Timberwolves team in nearly two decades.
just keep winning.— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) January 7, 2023
Rudy - 25 PTS / 21 REB / 3 BLK
DLo - 25 PTS / 5 REB / 4 AST / 2 STL
Jaden - 18 PTS / 4 REB / 3 AST / 1 BLK
Jaylen - 14 PTS / 6 AST
Kyle - 12 PTS / 7 REB / 6 AST
TP - 10 PTS / 3 REB / 1 AST
Naz - 10 PTS pic.twitter.com/ILOn2MuKr3
The Wolves will fly to Houston today for a Sunday showdown with Jalen Green and the Rockets. You can catch the 6 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North.