The Timberwolves’ defense was exposed by a spread offense. How can they fix it?
They need to find some solutions because Golden State is coming to town Wednesday.
ST. PAUL -- Everything was coming up Minnesota at the end of regulation Monday at Target Center. The Timberwolves not only rallied to tie the game and force overtime, but in doing so, they fouled out Kings’ star center Domantas Sabonis.
So with five extra minutes of overtime on tap, and Sacramento without its best player, the Timberwolves were in a prime position to score their fourth consecutive win.
It did not play out that way. Instead, Sacramento dominated the extra session on the way to a 118-111 victory. And the culprit was a familiar foe to Rudy Gobert teams playing in key situations — a small-ball, spread offense.
The Kings employed a lineup that featured no traditional big man. Instead, Sacramento trotted out Trey Lyles, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Harrison Barnes and Keegan Murray — five guards and wings with the ability to shoot from deep or attack off the bounce. That combination gave the Wolves fits.
The Kings scored on their first four possessions of overtime — including two made triples — to build a six-point lead the Wolves could not surmount.
“Overtime was simply about guarding the spread offense,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “We couldn’t do it.”
Which is concerning, considering that’s what Minnesota figures to see a lot come playoff time — should the Timberwolves advance to that stage of the season. And the failure to defend such a look is exactly what led to the demise of past Jazz teams when Rudy Gobert was in Utah. When you can play a five-out, spread offense, you immediately somewhat negate Minnesota’s best defensive weapon because Gobert has no choice but to leave his station in the paint in favor of defending his man out by the 3-point line.
“We weren’t really prepared for that, in a way. They got some wide-open threes. They were able to get two easy dunks,” Gobert said. “So, yeah, I thought we could’ve done a much better job.
But what does that look like for Minnesota? Is the solution based on execution or personnel?
Gobert said it starts with understanding the difference in defensive assignments when there are five shooters on the floor. Gobert is almost always Minnesota’s “low man” help defender at the rim, but that can’t be the case when he’s defending the ball-side corner. If he helps at the rim, there is no way he or anyone else can get back out to his shooter if the ball is kicked out.
“We’ve got to pretty much play like a regular shell, have a low-man from the weak side that comes if we get beat,” Gobert said. “And just guard and then switch if we need to.”
Minnesota’s non-Gobert help was nonexistent in overtime. On the first play, Malik Monk blew by D’Angelo Russell. Gobert was on the ball side, yet he helped as no one was coming over from the opposite side to contest at the rim. Monk made the dish out to Tre Lyles, who splashed a triple. So often, Gobert is the help defense. When he was drawn out of that position, his teammates looked almost uncomfortable being asked to take on some of those duties.
“I think we’ve just got to understand that there is a different scheme for us defensively when I’m guarding Sabonis and can clog the lane,” Gobert said. “And when I’m guarding a shooting five, then we just go to a shell.”
Certainly there were deficiencies from the team-defense concept. Finch said Minnesota simply didn’t execute the way it was supposed to. That’s the thing about any defensive scheme: It won’t work if guys can’t guard their man.
“I think we really have to sit down, guard and make them beat us,” Gobert said. “We can talk about anything we want, but it’s true — at the end of the day, a lot of it comes down to that.”
And not everyone in Minnesota’s rotation is capable of doing that. It’s why Finch said he should have inserted a different lineup capable of defending against those looks. Some may interpret that as not playing Gobert, and instead shifting the likes of a Kyle Anderson over to the center spot. But that’s unlikely.
Gobert noted he made mistakes Monday in overtime, like when he closed out too hard on Lyles on the perimeter, allowing Lyles to race by him for an and-one dunk. There was no help for Gobert at the rim, but he has previously stated he’d prefer his teammates stay home in those instances to give him ample space to make a chase-down block he simply didn’t deliver on that play.
But Minnesota is allowing just 109.5 points per 100 possessions when Gobert is on the floor this season, per data from Cleaning The Glass. That number gets 7.7 points worse when he’s not playing Minnesota cannot get stops when Gobert doesn’t play. So, more likely than not the Wolves will look at who needs to play around Gobert in those situations.
Gobert said he’s glad Minnesota faced such a look at this point in the season so it can craft its approach and be more ready to handle future instances. One of those may come as soon as Wednesday, as Golden State can trot out a number of different smaller lineups that are flush with shooting. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. at Target Center.
“I think it’s great that we’re seeing a lot of different lineups now. We know how to guard those lineups; it’s just our ability to adapt to it during the game. In the clutch moments, for example, for one possession sometimes it might be or just for all of overtime,” Gobert said. “Just trust our system and we’ll be alright.”
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