Growing trust between Anthony Edwards and Rudy Gobert has Timberwolves excelling

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It was perhaps the most meaningless game of the Minnesota Timberwolves season, a 48-point wipeout of a tanking team that has lost 15 straight games in a concerted effort to hang on to a top-six protected draft pick.

One would think a game as comically lopsided as this one would make it impossible to learn anything about the Timberwolves and their chances to make a run in the looming Western Conference playoffs.

Then Anthony Edwards turned around at his locker and uttered perhaps the most meaningful, consequential, and for the Timberwolves and their fans, exciting words of their season to date. Edwards, the rising star and emerging leader of the No. 1 team in the West, was asked where he has seen the most growth from a season that began with a loss in Toronto more than five months ago.

“I think trusting Rudy,” Edwards said after breaking out of a three-game shooting slump with five 3-pointers in Minnesota’s 133-85 victory over the Raptors on Wednesday night. “I think that’s the main thing. However many players on the team that plays — me, Nickeil, Mike, SloMo, Jaden, Naz, KAT — we all trust Rudy, like, together.”

That trust is everything for these Timberwolves, everything for Rudy Gobert, the oft-criticized, oft-lauded center who had such a disjointed introduction to Minnesota and his new teammates last season after being acquired in a trade from the Utah Jazz.

When Edwards offers an answer like that, it implies that the trust he is talking about has not always been there. Last season was hard for the Wolves, hard for Gobert and hard for the fans who saw new president of basketball operations Tim Connelly trade a boatload of draft picks and players for the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

Gobert entered training camp banged up from a grueling run with the French national team in the European championships. He got off to a slow start while acclimating to a new team, a new system and a new city. He is one of the most unique players in the league, one who was used to being the center of the Jazz universe, with a team constructed around him to maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses.

Everyone seemed tentative and uncertain. The ambiguity created frustration in Gobert — because his new teammates didn’t quite understand how to play with him — and in the rest of the team who was asked to play an unconventional style with Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns in the frontcourt.

The Wolves went an underwhelming 42-40, needing a victory over Oklahoma City in the second Play-In Tournament game to qualify for the playoffs, where they lost 4-1 in a first-round series to the Denver Nuggets.

Gobert averaged his fewest blocked shots per game (1.4) since his rookie season, didn’t receive a single vote for the NBA All-Defensive teams and infamously was suspended by the team because he punched Kyle Anderson in a huddle during the first Play-In game.

The lack of on-court chemistry with Edwards was easy to see. Edwards has never been a lob thrower, which took one of Gobert’s greatest strengths off the table when they ran the pick-and-roll together. There were times, even in the playoffs when Edwards seemed reluctant to throw Gobert a pass for fear that he would mishandle it or Edwards would airmail it when trying for the lob.

For lack of a better term, Gobert is an acquired taste on the basketball court. It takes time, reps and familiarity to bring out the best in him. His dominance is nuanced, even subtle sometimes, requiring a discerning hoops palate to fully appreciate.

“I think a lot of the stuff he does, either A) doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, or B) he might not have highlight plays,” said former Wolves guard Austin Rivers last season during his short stint in Minnesota. “He’s not your prototypical center All-Star, but he affects the game in so many different ways.”

Time and winning have opened everyone’s eyes. The vibes have been entirely different in Gobert’s second season in Minnesota. While he will never be the smoothest offensive player, he has shown that he can catch passes in traffic, use a little bit of footwork in the paint to score and still come through with highlight-reel blocks on defense. He looks much closer to the player who was so important in Utah, and the Timberwolves (53-23) look like a real threat because of it.

“We trust to hit him in the pocket. We trust when we call a post up we trust he gonna catch it and do his thing. Catch in the pocket, make the one more (pass). Trust him at the free-throw line. Just little things like that, it goes a long way.”

Much of the credit goes to Mike Conley, who arrived from Utah in a trade in the middle of last season. The Timberwolves needed someone who knew how to play with Gobert, so Connelly went and got Conley, a point guard who spent three seasons with Gobert on the Jazz.

Conley entered a jittery locker room in February 2023 and immediately went to work showing his new teammates how to best operate with Gobert. Conley showed them how Gobert likes to catch passes, explained to them the reads to know when it should be a lob or a pocket bounce pass and he underscored how effective Gobert is at creating offense for his teammates with the screens that he sets.

Everyone else is following suit. Towns was always one of the most accommodating players on the team, eagerly feeding Gobert in the post. Naz Reid has embraced playing power forward next to Gobert and turns those minutes in which he shares the floor with the 7-foot-1 center into big wins for the Wolves. And Edwards is starting to throw a lob to Gobert here and there, perhaps a little taste of what is to come in the playoffs.

Edwards recalled a point earlier this season where he told Gobert he wasn’t feeling the contested passes to his big man. Gobert spoke candidly to Edwards, asking him to trust him and promising that he would reward that trust. He even used some of Edwards’ favorite vernacular to drive home his point, calling him “Sac,” the ultimate term of endearment in Edwards’ world.

“When he was like, ‘Sac, trust me, I got you,’ and I hit him and he made a kick out,” Edwards said with a big smile, “and we came together and we were like, ‘yeah,’ ”

From Gobert’s perspective, he has always said that it would take time to build this belief and chemistry in one another. He knew there would be adversity, especially early on with all the newness clouding the picture. Things are much clearer now for him and his teammates.

Gobert lauded Edwards for his improvement this season as a playmaker, saying that is one of the biggest reasons the Timberwolves have their second-most wins in franchise history. Now Gobert is seeing the consistency and intensity from Edwards and everyone else, which he has been searching for the last two seasons.

“Our level of urgency was there since Day 1 of training camp,” Gobert said a few weeks ago. “I think our maturity and level of experience is a lot better now.”

Gobert finished with 11 points, 15 rebounds, three assists and two blocks and made sure Malik Williams, who was signed to a contract that day to help the injury-plagued Raptors, never got a sniff. Williams did not score and missed all seven of his shots in 31 minutes.

Edwards scored 28 points, Naz Reid had 23 and seven rebounds and Monte Morris scored 13 points, hit three 3s and had five assists and four rebounds in one of his best games since being acquired at the trade deadline. He has only been in Minnesota for a couple of months, but that is all it has taken for him to recognize Gobert’s importance on offense that supplements his defensive impact.

“Once his offense is going, he’s that much more active on defense,” Morris said. “I think we’re trending in the right direction. Just gotta stay focused and finish strong.”

The Timberwolves have won eight of their last 10 games to move into a tie with the Nuggets for the best record in the conference. Minnesota holds the tiebreaker, so they are currently in the top spot with some tough games at Phoenix and the Los Angeles Lakers this weekend.

All season long, these Timberwolves have looked different because they are different. The unsteadiness of the first season with Gobert has given way to a connection that seems to deepen by the day. The tentativeness has been replaced by force.

That is what it is going to take for the Wolves to make it out of the first round of the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history. Gobert has said he knows he wasn’t feared last season. One of his main goals this season has been to re-instill that fear in the rest of the league, a swagger that hits home with Edwards.

“He’s like my brother. We talk all the time. He texts me, we text all the time,” Edwards said. “I think everybody pretty much has 100 percent trust in him now at this point. He makes the right play every time.”

That is the key to everything for the Timberwolves.

The win over Toronto on Wednesday will be easily forgotten. If the Timberwolves breakthrough in the playoffs this season the way they believe they can, what Edwards said in the locker room after the game will resonate long after this season is over.

(Photo of Anthony Edwards and Rudy Gobert: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)

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