Rudy Gobert and his teammates must find proper mesh point to maximize Timberwolves’ ceiling

The Timberwolves’ vibes were immaculate in the three games they played without Rudy Gobert. The ball popped, the shots fell and the games were won.

Minnesota’s wide-open offense was scoring at will. It was a brand of basketball that was satisfying not only for onlookers, but the players themselves.

But scoring, Gobert noted, will never be a pressing issue for the Timberwolves. That won’t determine whether or not they reach their full potential.

“We don’t want to be just a good team, we want to be a championship team,” he said. “We’ve got to get out of our comfort zone and defend and be physical, and not just do it when we’ve lost three games in a row, we’ve got to do it every night. That’s what I was really happy to see when I was out. That, and we shared the ball offensively. I think when we get good shots offensively and defensively we communicate and we play with that urgency, I think we’re a really, really good team.”

There is validity to what Gobert says. Minnesota needs a consistent toughness and physicality if it is to move deep into the Western Conference playoffs. Gobert delivers that in spades. It’s why the team’s ceiling with the defensive dominator is higher than it is without him.

So even if the results aren’t as good at the moment with Gobert in the lineup — the Timberwolves lost to Dallas on Wednesday in Gobert’s return to action — the Wolves must continue to hunt for the right combination of play that allows Gobert to utilize his strengths while not stunting the rhythm achieved in his absence.

There will need to be some give and take by all involved. Gobert flashed a bit of that Wednesday. His specialty is serving as a defensive anchor who drops into the paint on pick-and-roll coverages. But Wednesday against Dallas, whenever Luka Doncic would execute a pick and roll, Gobert was playing up on the pick and rolls, executing the high-wall coverage Minnesota thrived with last season and again over the previous three games.

“He did a great job of being up and active and aggressive. It was awesome,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “We’ve done it a few times, but this was the best we’ve seen with him. So yeah, again, these are things we have to be able to do. We have to be able to do several different things, and he was good tonight.”

Gobert noted he “can do anything” defensively, adding that “it’s just about what’s best for the team.” Against Dallas, that’s often getting out on the perimeter to defend Doncic farther out to get the ball out of his hands. Minnesota then shifted late to switching pick and rolls to get Doncic out of the rhythm he’d established in the fourth quarter. Gobert actually would’ve liked to see that change made earlier. Still, the important thing moving forward is Gobert’s willingness and ability to play multiple coverages.

Anthony Edwards said Gobert’s return only helps the Wolves, adding that the team doesn’t need to make any adjustments and can just go out and play the same style as it did without him. Parts of that are true – Minnesota should still aim to move the ball and communicate defensively whether Gobert is out there or not. Gobert loved the “spirit” the team played with when he was out. But there are adjustments that come with playing alongside Gobert vs. a more offensively gifted but less defensively dominant player like Naz Reid.

For one, offensive players like D’Angelo Russell and Edwards have to adapt to playing with less space offensively, because Gobert will often be in and around the paint. And when Gobert sets a screen, it will always be to roll and never to pop out onto the perimeter. There is less optionality there.

With a player like Reid who can pop out either to get the ball for an open triple or simply to space the floor, Edwards and Russell have more space to attack. Edwards can drive to the paint knowing there won’t be a defensive big man inside to deter him.

But with Gobert, the lane is more clogged. But Minnesota needs to utilize Gobert’s presence on the interior. One way to do that is to simply attack yourself. If Edwards goes into the trees and misses at the rim, there is a great chance Gobert will be there to clean up via a putback.

Another way is through finding Gobert on his rolls and cuts. Edwards found Gobert for an easy lob dunk to open Wednesday’s game. Dallas didn’t play a true center all night, leaving Gobert with a number of easy mismatches. He punished the Mavericks to the tune of 19 points on 9-for-11 shooting.

And yet it felt Minnesota left so much on the table in that respect. Given Dallas’ defensive personnel and approach, it felt like a game in which Gobert could have scored 30-plus points without breaking a sweat had his teammates looked his direction more often.

“We haven’t been spectacular at that all year,” Finch said. “It’s probably a carryover of us not being really good at it.”

Shortly after Edwards hit Gobert for that early lob, the guard tried a similar play, only to turn the ball over. That failure seemed to deter Edwards from converting other opportunities throughout the game.

“I’m going to watch film and see how I can maybe get myself even more available,” Gobert said. “But yeah, I thought we could’ve hurt them more inside, especially when I have smaller guys on me. The only thing they can do is foul or bring another guy, and then I’m going to find shooters for clearer shots.”

Gobert said it’s something Minnesota can continue to work on. He understands the style of play Minnesota executes when he’s on the floor is different than what the Wolves had been playing in his absence.

“We’ve got to keep building,” Gobert said, “keep working together.”

It’s a requirement if Minnesota is to become the best team it can be with its current roster.

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