Timberwolves

Why Hasn't Rudy Gobert Been A Postseason Liability In Minnesota?

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

In the post-game press conference after Game 3 against the Phoenix Suns, a reporter asked Rudy Gobert if he could feel Phoenix’s apprehension around the basket. Gobert smirks before responding.

“Of course,” he said, “that’s what I do best.”

Gobert has been the league’s best post defender this season. But in Gobert’s playoff history, he has garnered a reputation for being a liability. Through four games, though, Gobert is shedding that career-long narrative that he can not be effective in the playoffs with his post play and on-ball defense.

We have to go back to the 2020-21 playoffs to understand the genesis of this narrative. June 18, 2021, will always be known as the Terance Mann game. The Jazz were trailing 3-2* in this crucial Game 6. If they were to win, the top-seeded Jazz would head home for a Game 7 and a trip to the Western Conference finals. The situation for the Jazz was dire.

Shortly after halftime, the Jazz led by 25 points, and it looked like a lock that they would force a Game 7 in Utah. Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Mike Conley led the way in a dominant performance, and the Clippers were desperate not to blow another series like they did the year prior.

Cue Mann, a relatively unknown Clippers bench player who would change the Jazz’s fate. The recap below shows how many open shots Mann gets, with Gobert sagging off to help protect the rim.

That’s where everything changed for Gobert. LA’s change in philosophy appeared to have broken Utah’s defense. Instead of avoiding Gobert, they reconstructed their offense to take advantage of him. The Clippers put five shooters in the game and played small, with Nicolas Batum at center.

That spread the floor and simplified the offense. The Jazz countered by placing Gobert on Mann, an unknown at the time, and trusting Gobert to help off of Mann to protect the rim. These changes by both teams meant that Gobert would be covering a shooter in the corner and have to help on the roll man to defend the rim.

As a result, the Clippers had a comeback that people still remember. LA rallied back, running pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll. Mann would get wide-open corner threes as Gobert was rotating to help at the rim, or Reggie Jackson and Paul George would get open layups when Gobert stayed in his corner guarding Mann.

Mann finished the game with a career-high 39 points, including 20 in the third quarter. Thirty-nine points is more than Mann scored in any game since high school, and the Clippers eliminated the Jazz 131-119.

That 37-point swing decimated the Jazz organization.

LA’s win created a media frenzy. The Clippers had exposed the best defensive player of the past four years. Rudy can’t win in the playoffs. It’s all good until the competition gets better. Overrated.

It’s a narrative Gobert is still fighting, according to The Athletic’s anonymous NBA poll.

It’s important to remember the past and to reflect on how things like that can change a player, a person, or an organization. Over the next season, Gobert’s Jazz fractured. Leaks of Mitchell wanting a trade and his unhappiness with Gobert started to happen almost weekly. The Jazz tore the team down to the studs. The Wolves were opportunistic, trading for Gobert and Conley, two pillars of that top-seeded Jazz team.

Gobert has returned to defensive player of the year play this season after an injury-plagued first season with the Wolves. Gobert is anchoring Minnesota’s top-ranked regular season defense and the odds-on favorite to win with DPOY for the fourth time. His advanced metrics have returned to the levels that won him his last three DPOY awards.

Still, some people had some reservations. The regular season production is excellent, but Rudy can’t play in the playoffs.

While it is only one series, Gobert appeared to have done much work to reverse this narrative. In Minnesota’s sweep of the Suns, Gobert was +15.5 per game while on the court, the highest mark of his career. However, some people dismiss plus/minus as a flawed statistic because it doesn’t account for context.

Still, Gobert’s advanced stats support his defensive prowess. He posted a career playoff-best 104.6 defensive rating. He also had a career playoff-best 22.7 net rating, shattering his previous high of 5.2 in seven playoff games during the 2019-20 season.

While Gobert was in the game, he only allowed 7.8 second-chance points per game, his lowest since the 2021-22 playoff run and 0.9 points better than his regular-season total. Gobert also only allowed 30.5 points in the paint per game, his lowest again since 2021-22 and 0.4 points better than his regular-season total.

In the clip below, Gobert sets the tone early on in Game 1 by defending in isolation against Durant.

Looking even closer, Gobert has a 20.8% steal percentage (the percentage of a team’s steals the player has while on the court), his best since 2016-17. Opponents are also shooting poorly against Gobert. When Gobert is the primary defender, opposing players shoot 30.0% from three on five attempts per game, a career-high. In 2020-21, this statistic was 37.3%.

The clip below shows Gobert closing hard to the three-point line and forcing the miss, which is a significant reason players only shoot 30% against him from three.

While we can assume that Gobert’s three-point defense was so good because he was guarding non-shooters, the positional tracking proves that Gobert is defending everyone. He’s guarding guards 23.4% of his time on the court, forwards 33.7%, and centers 42.9%. That means Opponents have switched Gobert out of his natural position, center, on well over half of his defensive possessions.

Guards are shooting just 30.8% from three against Gobert, and forwards are shooting 33.3% from three. Looking at Phoenix’s big three in particular, Gobert guarded Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal, or Devin Booker, and he forced them to shoot 4 for 13 from three, or 30.1%, with Booker going 1 of 5. Overall, the big three shot 19 of 47, 40.4%. Gobert also forced two steals. Most impressively, Gobert is doing all this while only averaging 3.0 fouls per game.

Below is one of Gobert’s steals when isolated against Durant.

Gobert’s ability to shift into a higher gear in the playoffs and shut down some of the best offensive players in the league should change the narrative that Gobert can’t win in the playoffs. His effort and commitment to being a defensive anchor and developing into an excellent on-ball defender against smaller players is commendable.

If Gobert can keep this level of play up for three more playoff rounds and do what he does best, he’ll narrative shed. Gobert can be part of the championship formula in Minnesota.

*An earlier post stated that the Jazz were down 3-1. We regret the error.

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