Timberwolves' secret defensive recipe helped lead to Game 1 victory

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets - Game One
Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets - Game One / Matthew Stockman/GettyImages

The 2023-24 Minnesota Timberwolves' claim to fame isn't Anthony Edwards; Sixth Man of the Year Naz Reid; or their extremely efficient offense. It's been their league-leading defense from the beginning of the season to the Western Conference Semifinals.

After acquiring three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert in a massive trade in 2022, the Wolves' defense has been revitalized. Prior to acquiring the stifling center, Minnesota resided near the bottom third of the league in defensive rating.

A year ago, the Wolves ranked 10th in the association in defensive rating. This past season, the Wolves led the league in both defensive rating and opponents points per game. Coincidentally, Gobert has been the driving force.

The former Utah Jazz pivot has never played for a team with a bottom-half defensive rating. This season, leading the NBA's best defense, he averaged 2.1 blocks per game and ranked as the stingiest interior defender in the league.

In the first round, the Wolves squared off against a perimeter-centric Phoenix Suns squad led by Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal. While Gobert's defensive presence was felt, the focus was more so on Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker as they dealt with the Suns' triumvirate.

In the second round, the Wolves' opponent—the Denver Nuggets—ranked fifth in the NBA in points in the paint. The driving force behind Denver's premier interior scoring was no other than MVP favorite, Nikola Jokic. Luckily for the Wolves, they roster one of the best defenders of the last decade to defend Jokic. However, instead of deploying Gobert, Minnesota used Karl-Anthony Towns as Jokic's primary defender.

Using Towns to match up against Jokic worked wonders for the Wolves defense. With the 7-footer defending the Serbian star, Minnesota's other 7-footer worked as a rover. Rather than sticking to the NBA's best player, Gobert was tasked with roaming the paint, awaiting driving Nuggets.

In Game 1, Towns defended Jokic for six-plus minutes. While defended by Towns, Jokic shot just 4-of-12 from the floor. The Denver big man also turned it over four times and didn't attempt a single free throw. Gobert's primary defensive assignment was Aaron Gordon, who only attempted two shots in nearly eight minutes while guarded by the Frenchman.

Gobert recorded three blocks and hauled in 12 defensive rebounds as the primary help defender. This defensive strategy led to Denver scoring less than 100 points and only recording 42 points in the paint—a 12-point decrease from their regular season average.

Although sticking Gobert on Jokic seems like the logical thing to do, he's best employed defending Gordon. In the regular season, the high-flying forward made just 29.0 percent of his triples. Whenever Gordon strays from the paint, Gobert is granted the luxury of patrolling the restricted area.

The remaining three starters' jobs are made easy with Gobert roaming the paint and Towns matched up with Jokic. Edwards and McDaniels are nearly interchangeable, as both players spent time defending Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.

Mike Conley Jr., the Wolves' smallest starter, matched up with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Nuggets guard didn't attempt one shot when defended by Conley Jr. His only recorded statistic was a turnover.

In five games against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Nuggets averaged 108.6 points, with 55.2 coming from inside the paint. Denver's biggest weakness was easily 3-point shooting in the first round. The Nuggets attempted 34.4 triples per game but made only 30.8 percent of those looks.

In Saturday's contest, Denver shot 13-of-41 from behind the arc—good for a 41.9 percent clip. Although the Nuggets shot quite well from distance, this is the best approach to slowing an efficient offense led by Jokic. In the regular season, Denver attempted a league-low, 31.2 threes per game.

Cutting off driving lanes, forcing outside shots, and limiting Jokic are all key for a successful series. One of Game 1's biggest takeaways was just that. Utilizing Gobert as a defensive free-safety forced the Nuggets to play an uncomfortable brand of basketball.