MIAMI — Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert had a sly smile on his face as he talked about why the team is off to a slow start lately.
“Maybe we should hit each other before the game or something,” Gobert said. “Just to be prepared to be physical.”
It apparently didn’t escape Gobert that he was the one who took a swing at teammate Kyle Anderson during last season’s regular-season finale, a moment that summed up a frustrating season that never got off the ground for the Wolves.
But as Monday’s 112-108 win over the Heat showed, the distance between last season and this season is like the gulf between the December weather in South Beach and Minnesota.
The 20-5 Wolves beat the NBA’s toughest team at home with an entire Heat roster minus just point guard Kyle Lowry. The phrase “Heat Culture” was everywhere at the Casilla Center – on the floor and on Miami’s jerseys. That phrase is synonymous with the kind of toughness the Heat profess to have that others in the NBA don’t, and they have two recent Eastern Conference titles to back it up.
But the Wolves went toe-to-toe and bucket-for-bucket down the stretch with the Heat and emerged victorious. When Miami started shooting in the final minutes, the Wolves always had an answer.
“The fourth quarter was amazing,” coach Chris Finch said. “The shots were at a high level by both teams.”
Anthony Edwards, who finished with 32 points, scored eight points in the final minutes, including a fadeaway shot to give the Wolves a 109-106 lead with 26.1 seconds left. It came after Tyler Herro (team-high 25 points) cut the lead to one point and had the crowd on its feet.
“I told Mike [Conley] “When they shot the ball to give me the ball and get out of the way because I work on it every day,” Edwards said, “I knew once I got to that spot, I was going toward the glass.”
Edwards’ jump came on a Wolves possession after Karl-Anthony Towns (18 points) grabbed an offensive rebound off Edwards’ miss on former Wolves forward Jimmy Butler (15 points) and then found Gobert (nine points, 16 rebounds) for an impressive alley-oop. Whoops for keeping the Wolves in third place.
“I was ready to bounce back,” Gobert said. “But I could see he saw me, and I knew he was going to throw it. It was a perfect pass and a great play.”
Moments like those, specifically the Towns-Gobert layup, were “winning plays,” Finch said. They were in short supply early in the game when the Wolves trailed at halftime by 17 runs.
But as has been their pattern of late, the Wolves put up defensive blocks again in the second half, winning 58-42.
“Our defense in the second half was everything,” Finch said. “The first half, I didn’t really like it. We were quiet. We looked confused in things that were simple, and we overtook them a little bit in the half, and they responded really well.”
The word “physicality” came up a lot after the game in players’ post-match comments about what had changed in defence.
“We told each other at halftime, ‘Let’s be physical and see what happens,'” Gobert said. “We did that, and the game took care of itself.”
It helped that the officials committed only six fouls in the third quarter. Trailing 83-77 after three, the Wolves finally took their first lead of the night when Conley (12 points, six assists) hit one of his four threes of the night to give the Wolves an 87-84 lead with 8:37 left to play.
They took some punches Monday night, but landed more.
“Every time we do the things we’re supposed to do, especially defensively, we put ourselves in a position to win the game,” Gobert said.
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