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Defense is key if Wolves want to go from so-so to serious contender

In Part III of our one-on-one with Chris Finch we focus on the Wolves defense, honing in particularly on the pros and cons of playing Gobert up in coverage more often.

Rudy Gobert
Minnesota Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch: “I am challenging Rudy [Gobert] this season to become not just a shot-blocker but a better verticality defender. As he transitions into the next phase of his career, that is something that will help him maintain elite rim protection.”
Photo by Shaina Benhiyoun/SPP/Sipa USA

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Here is part three of my extensive interview with Minnesota Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch. Part I focused on how to get more synergy out of the two-bigs lineup when Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert share the floor. Part II honed in on how and why Anthony Edwards took a giant leap toward stardom last season and how he can continue to accelerate that growth.

In Part III, we focus on the Wolves defense, honing in particularly on the pros and cons of two facets: Playing Gobert up in coverage more often instead of keeping him down near the rim; and using Nickeil Alexander-Walker as the on-ball wing stopper more often so Jaden McDaniels can expand his defensive contributions. We also detail the underrated growth of McDaniels on offense.

MinnPost: Let’s go (to) the defensive side. There was a lot not to like about Rudy’s game last year. But even as he is not blocking as many shots and he is committing more fouls, he is still driving down the offensive efficiency of the opponent. How is he doing that?

Chris Finch: Well first of all I do want to challenge the notion that there was not a lot to like about Rudy last season. I think Rudy gets unfairly criticized and I think knowing that will help answer the question that you asked.

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Rudy’s mistakes are loud and they’re obvious. Rudy’s successes are humming away in the background all the time. Those have to do with shot deterrence, shot profile, and not fouling a ton. If you have those three things, it is going to give you a chance to have a good defense. Teams aren’t going (to the rim) as much; when they do go, they settle for worse shots; and then if you are not continually putting them on the free throw line that also brings down efficiency. So right there are the reasons why.

I also think his experience in being able to read situations helps our team a lot. We learned a lot about little nuances of the game just in the way he liked to play drop (coverage on defense). I think we got better at it; I also think we need to continue to get better at it on certain stuff –pursuit from the guards needs to be a lot better; Rudy needs to stand his ground a lot earlier. I mean we gave up like 11 lobs last year – that’s nothing. But that probably means we gave up the rim (suspecting lobs and allowing finishes) because we worried about it too much.

I am challenging Rudy this season to become not just a shot-blocker but a better verticality defender. As he transitions into the next phase of his career, that is something that will help him maintain elite rim protection.

I have noticed a change in the league though. Three, four, five years ago, teams would settle –even though shot deterrence and shot selection are drivers of Rudy’s efficiency on defense, the trend around the league is that teams are going more (to the basket) and they are getting the shots they want more often. They are way-more accustomed to playing against (rim-protecting defenses). It is like anything else; if you see it every night, you get better at adjusting to it.

MP: And the influence of analytics. People focus on the analytic emphasis on three-pointers but analytics is also about prioritizing scores at the rim and drawing fouls.

Finch: Yes, exactly.

MP: You brought Rudy up in coverage occasionally last season. Against (Luka) Doncic of course, because of his skills and decision-making on the perimeter, but also against teams where not staying in a strict drop wasn’t so obvious. Will you continue to do that and bring him out from the basket on defense more?

Finch: Yes.

MP: How does he feel about that?

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Finch: Um, Rudy feels quite comfortable and confident in being able to execute a lot of different coverages, even switching. It is a lot about how long you can ask him to do it during a game. There is a little bit of a tug-of-war at times, getting him up (in coverage). He has had so much success in the past in being back and being down. But again, this points to the fact that we can have him up and we can have really good defenders as the low man. It can be Jaden McDaniels as the low man; KAT (Towns) could be the low man, Kyle (Anderson) could be the low man.

When he was in Utah, the scheme was send everything to him, stay home and face-guard on the perimeter to take away the three and just basically win that way. And they did an excellent job at it. But I have always preached to him from the time he got here that we have to be able to do different things. And we can’t wait for the playoffs to figure out what those different things are. We have also told him that if a team goes small, we can’t just have him played off the floor automatically; that isn’t what we are signed up for here. So if Rudy doesn’t want that to happen, he has to be more amenable to doing more different things.

And by the way, some of his best numbers happen when he is up.

MP: Plus the team flies around and seems to have more energy.

Finch: We need to generate more turnovers. We also need to rebound better, and I think you rebound better when you are up because you are pulled in a little bit more; you are not spread out as much.

MP: Right. If Rudy is boxed out or the rebound bounces in the other direction when you guys are in the drop with Rudy, you are screwed.

Finch: Or if you are leaning to stay home (on your man on the perimeter) and Rudy is in a drop, now Rudy has to drop, contest the shot and rebound. That’s hard. The best of the best can do it and he can do it. But it also puts a ton of pressure on you, to the point where we said to him, “They are coming downhill on you; they are turning corners.” The fear factor of bigs in drop coverage is gone compared to what it was a few years ago. So if you are not more aggressive plugging the point of attack, then you leave yourself a little bit more exposed.

And it just feels like to me you are not in control defensively. When teams are living in the paint all the time, it just feels like you are a little more vulnerable.

MP: Plus he came to a team that actually preferred playing up and was pretty good at it. Getting Kyle (Anderson) and (Mike) Conley have helped tilt that back a little, but it must have been frustrating to him not to have his teammates doing what they should do because they didn’t want to.

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Finch: It wasn’t that they didn’t want to. It is just that pursuing in a drop, breaking off (your assignment) at the right moment with the right amount of physicality; those are all learned skills that we had to learn. When you bring in the Defensive Player of the Year, a guy of Rudy’s pedigree, of course you are going to adjust to do what he does best. At least try that. And some days were better than others and overall it got better. But that puts a lot of pressure on Rudy to block every shot, challenge every shot, and when that didn’t always happen, then everybody gets a little frustrated. But it wasn’t that they didn’t want to do it. They just needed to learn the skill.

You know, being in a drop is a lot. It is why a lot of young bigs struggle with it – there is so much feel involved in it. Especially now, because offenses are adjusting and it is way more sophisticated. Guards are way more adept at getting to where they want to go.

MP: One of the subsidiary benefits of having Rudy play up more is making KAT more comfortable playing defense as a power forward isn’t it?

Finch: Well what it does is put KAT in rotation.

MP: But not as much in a perimeter rotation, right?

Finch: Well he could be in a perimeter rotation.

MP: But sometimes you guys had Mike (Conley) taking the stretch 4 (power forward) on the perimeter so KAT didn’t have to go out so far.

Finch: Yeah, we did some of that and flip our matchups, for sure. And we will continue to do that. I have always said that guarding at the 4 position is one of the trickiest things in the league because there is so much variation. That was something where we felt we didn’t have any kind of glimpse into how to manage the Rudy-KAT thing last year and we went in thinking that after 50 games we’d see enough different types of schemes and 4s and whatever our opponent was trying to do that we would become comfortable doing certain things, whatever those adjustments might be – change the matchups, changes the coverages, all that stuff. But we didn’t see enough to really feel comfortable with anything.

If you look at it fairly traditionally: If Rudy is in pick-and-roll coverage and he’s up, KAT could be in the slot, which puts him in rotation to the top of the floor. Or he could be low man, which is ideal. But then the next phase of that is how do you invert your defense as things are moving and developing so you can get KAT to an ideal spot? And maybe that is being way more aggressive earlier and that gives us time to sort out the back side.

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But yeah, I definitely would like to see Rudy play up more this year.

MP: Has the emergence of NAW (Alexander-Walker) as a wing stopper on defense, especially in the playoffs, made you think about playing Jaden (McDaniels) off the ball a little more?

Finch: Yes. The benefit of that is that Jaden is, I think, our second-best rim protector. It would also help his rebounding. If we are talking about little growth areas that will pay dividends, Ant and Jaden rebounding better has to be in there. But if he is on the ball it is tougher to rebound.

MP: That is another place where Mike Conley helped a lot; he rebounded well when he came over. Not that you can rely on your point guard to get six a game or something.

Finch: I am a firm believer that you’ll never be a good rebounding team until your smalls rebound at an average or a plus level. What Mike was able to do was get all the 50/50 balls that bounced on the floor and that we were never able to get. We were a really poor 50/50 ball team.

MP: J-Mac (Jordan McLaughlin) being an exception as well as Mike (Conley).

Finch: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MP: Do you think putting Jaden off the ball on defense – will it be better, worse or the same for his fouling?

Finch: Good question. We think it will be better.

MP: Many of his fouls happen early in the possession, before the play has fully developed.

Finch: I think the single biggest growth for (curbing) his fouling is his emotional control. He just gets to the point where he makes a dumb foul.

MP: Too competitive.

Finch: The guys he guards – it could be Doncic one night, Julius Randle the next – are the guys who always have the ball in their hands, which means he is always being watched. You have to go into that game thinking, “I have four fouls (before disqualification) not six.” Because you are going to wear two fouls just by that matchup.

When I get excited about this team it is about all those little pieces that we have to nail: Jaden rebounding and staying out of foul trouble. Anthony (Edwards) drawing fouls. If we can keep stacking those improvements, that is where we gain our consistency. I mean, I’m not saying there aren’t big things to figure out, but it has to be built on that.

MP: When I really dug into the numbers preparing for this interview, it struck me that Jaden had a really good year offensively.

Finch: Yeah, he did.

MP: Much more than the eye test would indicate.

Finch: Yeah. Yet his usage went up by 1%.

MP: Yet he was so much more prominent, but, like Mike (Conley), doing it in a stealthy way. As a pick-and-roll ball-handler, scoring off screens, and other play types, he was really efficient. Yet he can’t be featured in this lineup.

Finch: Very hard to. So, the key for him is to keep mining that shaft. Things that we didn’t see that I think will come back, is how well he plays off of KAT as a cutter. When I think about Jaden’s season last year, there are some things that are kind of wild about it. One is that he started the season shooting terribly (from three-point range) and wound up shooting 40%. Two is that he would make a living cutting when KAT had the ball. When KAT was out for 50 games, he didn’t know where to put himself for a while moving off the ball. He is so good off the ball. I mentioned about Jrue Holiday earlier. Jrue has never been a super high-usage player, but he is a super high-impact guy. So Jaden has to just keep mining that shaft.

Of course when we had a lot of injuries and Jaden was featured a little bit more, it was great, he really responded. But it is a tough balance, and a tough one for him.

MP: He did grade out really high on his cuts in terms of points per play.

Finch: He is an outstanding cutter. He anticipates spacing and cutting probably better than anyone on our team, really. We put a lot of emphasis on sharing the floor. We are big believers in that you cut for your teammates, it is almost a sacrificial thing; you don’t always benefit from it. But he has the ability to benefit from it because he can cut, catch and finish, which not everybody can do. Also, when you can see what is coming two passes ahead of time; that’s when you know you have these anticipatory skills. He has that. We didn’t teach him that. That is just in him.

I was talking to (assistant coach) Joe Boylan the other day, saying, “I don’t know how we increase his usage. I just don’t.”

MP: You think he’ll be okay with that?

Finch: I think so.

MP: He still doesn’t have a new contract (laughing).

Finch: He’ll have a contract. But yeah, when you are able to make that type of impact and you don’t need the ball to do it, every team needs more guys like that.