MILWAUKEE — Rudy Gobert sat at his locker after perhaps the Minnesota Timberwolves’ best offensive game of the season and offered a glimpse into the tutorial he is giving Anthony Edwards as they go through the process of learning how to play together.
“I know now how to get him open,” Gobert said after a 129-105 win over the short-handed Milwaukee Bucks. “I keep telling him, ‘When you see me screening for you, you don’t need to go fast. You don’t need to rush. You know that I’m going to give you an advantage. So you just gotta read.’ ”
The Timberwolves trade deadline deal to acquire Monte Morris from the Detroit Pistons was made as a way of addressing their offensive shortcomings, adding more shooting and precision to a unit that turns the ball over way too much and needs to increase its volume of 3-point shots. Morris will certainly help with his career 39 percent 3-point shooting and elite assist-to-turnover ratio.
But the bottom line is this: If the Timberwolves want to see a significant jump in offensive rating befitting of a team that has aspirations of making a deep playoff run, the stars are going to have to lead it.
Karl-Anthony Towns is going to have to continue his recent trend of letting it fly from 3 to provide spacing and reduce the turnovers that short-circuit possessions. Edwards is going to have to expedite his maturation process, resisting the instinct to put the game entirely on his shoulders as he rises for contested 2-point jumpers. And Gobert is going to have to be content setting brick wall screen after brick wall screen, even if they come without as many lobs as he would probably like.
The game against the Bucks offered a glimpse into what it can look like when everyone is locked in. Milwaukee was missing All-Star Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton, but neither of those two players would have helped their defense all that much. The Wolves thrashed the Bucks with as balanced of an effort on offense as they have had all season. Edwards had 26 points and nine assists, Towns scored 19 on 4-of-6 shooting from 3, Gobert had 16 points, 11 rebounds and four assists and Mike Conley hit 6 of 7 3s on his way to 18 points and nine dimes.
The Wolves had 34 assists on 48 made baskets and the Wolves made 21 of 41 3s. Over the last two games, including that demoralizing loss to Chicago, they have shot 86 3s and made 41 of them. Towns, who will compete in the 3-point contest at All-Star weekend in Indianapolis, is leading the way in that regard, including a 7 of 16 night against the Bulls.
“I think that what I was impressed with, and that fans of the Wolves will be impressed by when you see us playing (against Milwaukee), you didn’t see any ego or anything like that,” said Towns, who also played a pivotal role in limiting Giannis Antetokounmpo to 17 points on 14 shots. “It was just about winning the game. Whoever has the hot hand or gets the ball in the right spot, take the shot.”
When the volume of 3s increases, the room for Edwards and Gobert to operate in the pick-and-roll goes up as well. That partnership has been a work in progress over the last year and a half with Edwards acclimating to the nuances of how Gobert likes to receive passes and Gobert trying to earn Edwards’ trust that, if he throws the big center the ball, Gobert will catch it and punish the defense.
The veteran and the youngster play at different speeds, and Gobert has been urging Edwards to slow down his game to give himself more time to make the reads that mess with a defense. He has told Edwards tales of his pairing with Joe Ingles in Utah. Ingles is nowhere close to the athlete that Edwards is, but his patience and vision made it a devastating combination.
“So now you’ve got Anthony Edwards. He’s able to dunk on people and he’s a great finisher and also a great 3-point shooter,” Gobert said. “The only way they can guard is they have to bring a third guy, and then that means we get our shooters open in the corners or at the top of the key.”
Edwards is averaging 6.0 assists per game in the last month. He had five in Chicago and is starting to understand how much mustard he has to put on the pocket pass, so it bounces up high enough for Gobert to handle it.
OH MY RUDY GOBERT. 😤 pic.twitter.com/HMgX1iTht6
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) February 9, 2024
“Just taking my time. Not going fast, because Rudy is a tool in pick-and-roll if you use him the right way,” Edwards said. “I’m learning more and more as the games we play together, like two-man action, how long it takes him to roll, should I wait on him this time? Should I go? He talks to me. He helps me a lot.”
In turn, Gobert is learning more about the angles he needs to use with Edwards and how to adjust his roll to make himself available for Ant, which is different than when he runs a pick-and-roll with Conley, who sees things develop a little more quickly because of his experience with Gobert.
“For (Edwards), it’s about recognizing the coverage,” Gobert said. “For me, when I know the coverage, I know that sometimes I’m going to have to hold the screen, sometimes I’m going to have to roll quick, sometimes I’m going to be in the pocket for him. He’s getting better and better at being able to recognize different ways that they’re going to guard him.”
Edwards is trying to slow down his game for Gobert, and he is also asking Gobert to speed up at times for him. Edwards likes to turn the corner quickly on a screen and head downhill to the basket. If Gobert can be quicker once he gets into his roll, he has a better chance of positioning himself for a pass. It’s a game of compromise that will be crucial in maximizing what the Timberwolves can be.
“If you roll fast, now I can see you,” Edwards tells Gobert. “I can play with you. He’s definitely getting better and rolling fast for sure.”
setting the second half tone. 😤 pic.twitter.com/jwcdU7aloP
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) February 9, 2024
Morris was not available for the game on Thursday night because the trade was still being finalized. He will get to practice with the team in Minneapolis this weekend and is expected to be in uniform on Monday in Los Angeles against the Clippers.
It was a needed move for the Timberwolves, but not the kind of groundbreaking deal that they made last season when Connelly sent D’Angelo Russell to the Lakers and landed Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. This season’s team didn’t need a major change like that but needed a tweak.
There was never going to be a Wolves trade this season that was going to markedly change the team’s prospects, not with the relative lack of assets that they had to move. Morris will help, especially when it comes to reducing the burden on Conley.
But the story of this Wolves season will be told by its stars. They are the ones who will be on the floor in crunchtime. They are the ones who have to develop the offensive identity to match the opposing team when a star gets hot. They are the ones who have to stop turning the ball over all of the time.
There are 30 games left in the regular season. There is still time for that synergy to grow, but the urgency has to be there. Coach Chris Finch has been encouraged by what he has seen from the Edwards-Gobert pairing in recent weeks. Gobert is an elite screener and Edwards is an elite scorer. They have to be able to work together to make this thing go. They hold the keys.
“It’s not just Ant finding Rudy. That was the first thing we had to try to unlock,” Finch said. “Now it’s the timing of it, the setting it up, when to go downhill, when to hold the screen. All that kind of stuff. That’s growing.”
(Photo of Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards: David Berding / Getty Images)