Timberwolves’ big ball lineup looked good Wednesday. But it’s about to be put to the test
The same lineups that looked ugly for the first quarter of the season somehow meshed against Atlanta
Big ball is about to be put to the test.
The approach was ridiculed nationally after the Minnesota Timberwolves traded for 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert to pair with 7-foot Karl-Anthony Towns. It was an official zig while much of the rest of the league zagged with small approaches, particularly with their late-game closing lineups.
The early returns were not good. Minnesota went 10-11 in its first 21 contests before Towns went down with a calf strain that caused him to miss four months and forced the Timberwolves to return to more traditional, one-big lineups.
But Towns came back Wednesday and with him came again the big-ball approach. Not only did Towns and Gobert share the floor for minutes in the Wolves’ 125-124 win over Atlanta on Wednesday, but Naz Reid also reverted to playing power forward alongside either center.
The same lineups that looked ugly for the first quarter of the season somehow meshed against Atlanta. Minnesota was able to punish the Hawks down low — scoring 62 points in the paint to Atlanta’s 50 — and nipped the Hawks in the rebounding battle.
On the flip side, the Wolves weren’t outrun. They tallied 19 fast-break points to Atlanta’s 16. Transition was a major issue with Minnesota’s big approach to start the season. But Gobert remains convinced that it was more about execution and awareness.
“People will look at the size that will think we can’t move,” he said. “We’ve got bigs that can run, that can move.”
And after a season filled with what he aptly called “growing pains,” Gobert feels Minnesota’s communication has improved to where the Wolves have buttoned up many of those issues.
That appeared evident in the middle of the fourth quarter when Minnesota went on a 19-4 run with a lineup of Gobert, Reid, Kyle Anderson, Taurean Prince and Jaden McDaniels. It’s about as big of a lineup as an NBA team can construct.
The Hawks had no answer for it.
“It’s math. Length, when guys get tired, the length is still going to be there. You can get tired, but the length is still there,” Gobert said. “And when we just play the way we played during that run — getting stops, running, putting pressure on the boards — it’s a tough matchup for anybody out there.”
Reid noted sheer size isn’t going to intimidate anyone in the NBA. It’s on Minnesota to use that length to impose its will.
“You’ve got to go out there and do something. It’s one thing to have that visual sight, but it’s another thing to be out there contributing and everybody is going to work in each and every way,” Reid said. “That’s the difference maker. It’s good to have that size, but it’s like ‘What are we doing?’ I feel like moving forward, I think a lot of big things are going to be coming.”
Mike Conley said everything with those lineups starts on the defensive end. Anderson loved the way that group defended against the Hawks. He noted so many guys within those lineups can switch matchups off screens. The size can also help solve Minnesota’s season-long rebounding riddle.
The positives for the lineup are evident. But the ridicule was there for a reason. There are some matchups where big ball can be effective — maybe more so than people initially believed.
“There’s always going to be opinions, and the greatest things don’t happen in one night. It’s about being able to keep putting in the work every day,” Gobert said. “You go through adversity and learn from it and then come back better. Obviously, KAT was out for a few months, so it was tough not being able to get those experiences with him, but I still think as a team we got a lot better, and now he can come back and jump onto the train and be who he is and at the same time, fit into the system and the values that we’ve been building over the last few months.”
Those looks will be tested in upcoming games. Golden State, the Wolves’ opponent on Sunday, has the shooting to stretch Minnesota out and make bigs uncomfortable defending on the perimeter. Asking Towns or Reid to stick with a Donte DiVincenzo-type player could prove to be a tall task.
Timberwolves coach Chris Finch has said some of Minnesota’s lineups are about getting its best guys on the floor. But if things shift, he may not be beholden to big ball at a time when the Timberwolves simply need wins, no matter which lineups are required to get them.
“If guys aren’t playing well, we go to a different lineup,” he said, “We have the flexibility to go a lot of different directions.”
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