Conley: Timberwolves Using Gobert Differently On Defense

Mar 16, 2023, 4:46 PM | Updated: 4:53 pm
Minnesota Timberwolves Center Rudy Gobert...
Minnesota Timberwolves Center Rudy Gobert (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – Mike Conley says the Minnesota Timberwolves are using Rudy Gobert differently than the Utah Jazz did on defense.

Conley was traded by the Jazz to the Timberwolves last month, reuniting with his All-Star teammate from Utah ahead of Minnesota’s playoff push.

Though the Jazz made the postseason in each of Gobert’s and Conley’s three years together, the talented roster never made it past the second round. Right or wrong, many pundits blamed the team’s shortcomings on Gobert’s inability to defend against five-out offenses.

Under then-head coach Quin Snyder, the Jazz defense was designed to funnel players into the paint where Gobert, then the NBA’s top rim protector, was there to swallow up the easy looks at the rim.

While it lead to strong defensive rankings in the regular season, the Jazz’s inability to stop the opponent’s three-point shooting in the playoffs proved to be fatal.

Does Gobert’s Defense Work In The Playoffs?

In 2021, despite owning the third-best defensive rating in the league during the regular season, the Jazz were eliminated by the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round, where their defensive rating dropped to 12th out of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs.

In 2022, the Jazz finished with the 10th-ranked defense in the league during the regular season, and were unable to improve on that number in their first-round exit at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks.

In both cases, it was the Jazz’s poor three-point defense that helped do them in.

The Clippers shot a blistering 43.3 percent from three against the Jazz in the playoffs, the highest number by any team in any series during the 2021 postseason.

The Mavericks meanwhile shot 37.1 percent from deep, giving the Jazz the sixth-worst three-point defense out of the 16-team field.

Can New Approach Save Minnesota?

Now, after last summer’s blockbuster trade, Minnesota will face a similar dilemma with Gobert if they qualify for the playoffs.

But how will the Timberwolves adjust?

Dane Moore, who covers the roster, asked Conley how Gobert is being used differently in Minnesota.

“Here we do a little more of our normal team shell, so we’re not necessarily trying to keep Rudy at the rim,” Conley said. “In Utah, we were doing schemes and things to try to keep him underneath the basket as much as possible, but it made it tougher, longer close-outs and things like that for us.”

During their last two playoff exits, two players specifically were beneficiaries of those long closeouts.

Terance Mann shot 7-10 from three in a series-clinching game-six victory, helping the Clippers erase a 25-point Jazz second half lead in 2021.

In 2022, Maxi Kleber shot an incredible 16-21 from the three-point over the first three games of the series against the Jazz, allowing Dallas to take a 2-1 series lead despite playing without Luka Doncic.

Conley then elaborated on how Gobert is being used differently by the Timberwolves.

“Rudy, he’s basically a guard at some points,” Conley said. “He ends up at the nail, he ends up at the top of the key. He ends up guarding a guard at the top, so we’re just basically sticking to our principles. If they get beat baseline, the low man has to be there, and then kinda X-out from there.”

With the playoffs fast approaching, the Timberwolves now have to prove their new strategy will carry them further in the playoffs than Gobert got with the Jazz.

To their credit, Minnesota owns the 11th-best defensive rating in the NBA, only one spot behind where the Jazz finished last season, but there are concerns.

The Jazz last season allowed opponents to shoot 35 percent from the three-point line, good for 13th-best in the NBA. While that number was decidedly middle of the pack, the Timberwolves this season are worse.

Minnesota is allowing opponents to shoot 37 percent, two full points worse than last year’s Jazz, and rank 22nd in the NBA.

Furthermore, the Timberwolves are allowing opponents to knock down 12.7 threes per game (ninth-most), up from the 12.1 (17th-most) the Jazz allowed last year.

Ultimately, neither Minnesota’s strategy nor their defensive ranking will matter until they get to the postseason, as the Jazz learned each of the last two seasons.

If the Timberwolves can slow their opponent’s five-out attack, coach Chris Finch’s approach will be a success. If they can’t, Gobert will once again bear the label of a one-trick defender.

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Ben Anderson is the Utah Jazz insider for KSL Sports and the co-host of Jake and Ben from 10-12p with Jake Scott on 97.5 The KSL Sports Zone. Find Ben on Twitter at @BensHoops or on Instagram @BensHoops.

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Conley: Timberwolves Using Gobert Differently On Defense