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How the Timberwolves, Rudy Gobert’s defense, pull off a huge win in Game 1 against the Suns

The Timberwolves’ defensive adjustments highlight Rudy Gobert’s greatness in the Game 1 win over the Suns

The Minnesota Timberwolves sent a message in Game 1 of the first round of the 2024 NBA Playoffs. The Wolves hosted the Phoenix Suns and looked to avenge their 0-3 regular season record against the Suns and their trio of stars. However, Minnesota flexed their might all game long to open the postseason series.

The Wolves’ elite defense looked more like their usual level of play and once again reigned supreme. Minnesota held the Suns to under 100 points in the 120-95 win. This game showcased a few key adjustments that the Minnesota coaching staff made in this series to best limit Devin Booker and Bradley Beal offensively.

Rudy Gobert’s defense in the pick-and-roll

The most vital change for Minnesota coming into the series was their pick-and-roll defensive schemes. Rudy Gobert is on the verge of possibly winning his fourth career Defensive Player of the Year, with about half of his defensive impact coming directly in the painted area. However, against the Suns in this game, his edge deterrence isn’t as necessary as it is against other teams.

As a result, Chris Finch and Minnesota’s coaching staff used the Timberwolves’ anchor at the screen level far more often than they have all season. Not only did Gobert cover screens more aggressively, but Minnesota willingly shifted its center into space. Throughout the 82-game season, Minnesota engaged in these types of defensive screens but never fully committed to doing so with consistency at high volumes.

On Saturday afternoon, however, Minnesota called on their 7’1” big man multiple times to defend Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker in isolation. Gobert not only survived these situations, he thrived in the challenge. On multiple occasions, the Wolves’ best defender stymied Phoenix’s best perimeter talent, while the unique matchups pushed the Suns to rely solely on isolation offense.

Afterplay, ClutchPoints asked Coach Finch about Gobert’s work on defense as he took the opportunity to defend some of the league’s best in isolation. Finch praised Gobert’s defensive talent, highlighting his ability and willingness to defend at all three scoring levels.

“Rudy is a very good defender at all levels. He comes down, he’s big, he can move well. He cares, he takes it personally… He often wants that challenge.”

Timberwolves’ on-screen navigation is king

guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (9) defends him in the third quarter at Target Center.
Mandatory credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

While the Wolves occasionally shifted from their typical defensive game plan, Minnesota’s core defensive identity remained intact. At the heart of the league’s best defense are two words. “Contain ball”. All season long, Minnesota’s strongest defensive performances came from elite ball control. Their worst performances were the result of poor ball control. On Saturday, Minnesota’s defensive masterclass was the result of incredible ball control as a byproduct of elite screen navigation.

Phoenix aggressively hunted for open space by continually trying to shield the Timberwolves’ best perimeter defenders. However, Jaden McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker did not flinch. The top two perimeter stoppers have found ways to stay connected with the Suns’ elite shotmakers. NAW and McDaniels were able to clear the space by consistently playing tight against the ballhandlers.

When Minnesota employed their typical drop coverage, the Wolves still managed to effectively limit the quality of looks from Phoenix’s key scorers. Behind the mix of switch coverage and drop coverage, the Suns never found a reliable offensive rhythm outside of Durant to beat contested jumpers. Booker and Beal combined to shoot just 11-27 from the field as Alexander-Walker and McDaniels won the first battle of the series.

The Timberwolves’ effort shone through

Phoenix Suns guard Bradley Beal (3) passes the ball as Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert (27) plays defense in the second half during game one of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Target Center.
Mandatory credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Plan and personnel will always be central to finding success on the field. Without these elements, effort cannot produce profit. However, when the plan and personnel align, effort is the final ingredient needed to suffocate teams on the defensive end of the floor. For the first time in a while, Minnesota played the game with a level of desperation and effort not seen since the start of the season. Postgame, Anthony Edwards shed light on what lit a fire for the Wolves heading into Game 1.

“These guys came in here and yelled at us the last game of the season on our home court… like Beal said, he told our coach he didn’t think we were playing hard enough and he was right.”

Edwards then talked about how Beal’s comments in game 82 fueled the Wolves in the week leading up to the start of the playoffs.

‘Finchy didn’t like that. He came in the next day and said, ‘You’ve got guys on the other team telling me you’re not playing hard enough for me.’ He was absolutely right. We were just out there running around and letting them do what they wanted to do, man.

Finch’s players rose to the occasion in Game 1. Not only did they play hard, they dominated Phoenix the entire game. Even though it’s a best-of-seven series, it’s clear that Minnesota isn’t in the game. The strong start to the series set the tone while the Suns still need to do some soul searching to find answers for the Wolves’ adjustments.