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Wolves and fans see payoff after patience with Gobert

Before the season began, Timberwolves point guard Mike Conley emphasized that it took some time to learn how to play with center Rudy Gobert.

Conley had gone through the process in Utah, and there were adjustments on both ends of the floor. On offense, Gobert is one of the best screeners in the league, but he also presents a unique challenge spacingwise because he's a constant presence around the lane. On defense, it can also take some time to figure out how best to operate around Gobert, to learn how he likes to communicate and not just send drivers to him at the rim.

"The first year, it's such a work in progress for both sides," Conley said in September. "And the second year, you let go of a little bit of that frustration of certain things that don't work."

A night like the one Gobert had Saturday (1-for-6, two turnovers) might have been cause for consternation last season. So much of the dialogue around the Wolves revolved around the trade for Gobert and how much they gave up for him. That hasn't been the case this season as Gobert has paced the No. 1 defense for the No. 1 team in the Western Conference, which the Wolves remained even after Saturday's loss to the Thunder. Not only have the players adjusted to life with Gobert and the quirks he brings, but so seemingly have the fans.

"There was a lot of speculation, a lot of chatter and negativity around the trade, particularly when we weren't playing well," coach Chris Finch said after a recent win in Detroit. "He bore the brunt of that, unfairly so. But inside, we never wavered in our belief in him. We've always been pretty tight-knit around him, around each other. And now, like, we're seeing Rudy really comfortable with being in Minnesota, comfortable with his teammates. The fans now love him. That's 180 degrees from where it was a year ago."

Even with all the issues the Wolves had last season, Gobert said he is grateful for the experience and that he has seen a linear progression for the Wolves since he arrived. He felt they got better throughout last season, even though Karl-Anthony Towns was out for most of it, and then continued that momentum over the summer and into this season.

He also always felt the organization's full support. Not that there was any other choice but to have his back.

"They traded a lot of things for me, so they were going to be behind me from the beginning," Gobert said. "But yeah, when you come with a reputation and success doesn't happen right away, people maybe can start doubting you or doubting what you do. The team, Finchy, they never doubted me. … They kept trust in me, and it takes time to learn."

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By that, Gobert means it takes time to learn how to play with him, like Conley said.

"The way I play defense is a totally different system," Gobert said. "It takes time for them to accept the change of ways of playing defense and understanding the way I can maximize our team defensively, and also for me the same way. It's a reminder to get out of my comfort zone too."

Gobert has done that by guarding more on the perimeter than he did in Utah, and the Wolves have also adjusted to how he dictates the defense. Anthony Edwards said that is the biggest improvement he has noticed on defense from last season: how the Wolves communicate better with Gobert.

"We're on the same page," Edwards said. "I have no problem with what he do out there. As long as we on the same page, we good."

They've been good for most of the season. Now can they be great?

"I'm really grateful for them embracing me, and for me, I love that challenge," Gobert said. "I love having all that pressure on my shoulders."