When the Minnesota Timberwolves gave up one of the biggest trade packages ever to acquire Rudy Gobert from the Utah Jazz, they did so with the expectation that they were getting arguably the best defender in the league. In his first year with the club, that was not the case. But it's a different story this season, and that's making all the difference for the first-place Wolves.
Gobert's impact was on full display on Tuesday night, as the Wolves held on to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, 106-103, thanks to 17 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks from the big man. None of those stats came on what was his best defensive possession of the game, however.
One sequence late in the fourth quarter exemplified Gobert's resurgence through the first month of this new campaign.
With just under five minutes to play, the Wolves were clinging to a five-point lead when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander brought the ball up the floor and drove hard to the basket. Gobert slid over to shut off his path to the rim, but that meant he then had to sprint back out to the corner, where Chet Holmgren was spacing the floor.
Gobert did so in three steps, forcing Holmgren to put the ball on the deck. He then slid his feet to make sure there was no blow-by, and forced the Thunder rookie into a sweeping hook that never had a chance. But with Gobert contesting, the Thunder were able to sneak inside and grab the offensive rebound.
No bother, just another chance for Gobert to show off. Again, he had to close out on Holmgren, and again he forced him to dribble. From there, Gobert was all over him, and forced a kickout to Isaiah Joe. When Joe starts driving, Gobert makes his presence known, and the Thunder guard doesn't even bother heading into the paint.
Instead, he swings it to Holmgren for the third time. Finally, the Thunder center decides to shoot the jumper, but it comes up way short due to Gobert's strong contest.
In a 20-second span, Gobert closed out three times, contested two shots and made two players reconsider drives to the rim. He also celebrated twice, including a big fist pump in the middle of the possession, which he fully earned.
With a rejuvenated Gobert leading the way, the Wolves have the best defense in the league at 106.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. They are giving up just 25.5 attempts within five feet, and opponents are shooting 58.7% on those looks. Those marks are good for third and fourth in the league, respectively.
"He's back to the Rudy that we had to face for many years, which is a real problem," Wolves head coach Chris Finch said earlier this season. "I can't speak to what other teams' philosophy is, but we're doing a lot better job of making it harder for people to get to him, too. The drives are not clean, open-line drives like they maybe were a year ago."
Tuesday's win over the Thunder wasn't enough to get the Wolves a spot in the knockout stage of the league's new In-Season Tournament, but it did ensure they remain all alone atop the Western Conference at 13-4. With Gobert playing at this level, the Wolves have a real chance to make some noise this season.