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FILM STUDY: A Tale of Two Center Archetypes

Alec Sturm offers an instant film study of how the Nets attacked Rudy Gobert, adjusting their offense to negate his big weapons.

Brooklyn Nets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

After failing to find their footing in the immediate aftermath of the NBA Trade Deadline, the Brooklyn Nets have bounced back with a strong week of basketball to open the month of March. Brooklyn is learning how to navigate a world without superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and embrace a new identity around high-level defense and offensive pillars in Mikal Bridges and Spencer Dinwiddie.

A three-game win streak came to and end Thursday evening in Milwaukee, what turned into a scheduled rest night for the Nets’ rotational players. Brooklyn had not yet had consecutive days off since the end of the All-Star Break and were beginning their second back-to-back.

Friday evening was another 8:00 p.m. tip in the neighboring state of Minnesota vs. the Timberwolves. The T-Wolves’ season has been rocky, to say the least. After changes at the top of the organization that produced new faces leading ownership and basketball operations, Minny swung for the fences by acquiring former DPOY Rudy Gobert from Utah for a hefty price: four players, the draft rights to their own first rounder plus four future first firsts, all unprotected.

The team has failed to build on the momentum their 7th-seeded finish last year built for them, however. No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards earned his first All-Star appearance in 2023, but star big man Karl-Anthony Towns has missed the majority of the year due to injury and Gobert regressed. Still, the “Stifle Tower” proved to be a worthy opponent for the visiting Nets.

Brooklyn struggled to contain Gobert in the first half. He scored 14 points and brought down seven rebounds. The big man is a formidable screen setter and strong physical presence, so he would frequently overpower Brooklyn’s center Nic Claxton in one-on-one situations or slip in for a put-back dunk after Claxton was forced to account for a pick-and-roll ball-handler.

At halftime, the Nets switched up their matchups. A smaller but stockier player would reprise the role of Gobert’s primary defender, while Claxton would line up with the next-tallest Timberwolf. In Brooklyn’s switching scheme, Claxton would sometimes end up back with the former DPOY, but that would be later in the shot clock once Minnesota was already engaged in a play and swinging the ball around.

Gobert is what’s considered a “play finisher” in the NBA. He’s not going to be able to create an advantage on offense for his team by getting by his defender or overpowering him off the dribble. He will, however, set solid screens to allow his teammates to create advantages and finish off plays near the basket with high-efficiency dunks.

Thus, the Nets were content with letting the Frenchman post up smaller players.

Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn said postgame, “If they wanted to post Rudy up for the remainder of the game, we would find a solution for that. But we wanted space for our guys to score the ball.”

Claxton’s off-ball role as a lengthy weak-side rim protector can be compared to the role Kevin Durant filled for Brooklyn before being moved or Robert Williams for the Celtics in last year’s playoffs. Teams often use a stronger player with a low center a gravity to land the first blow on a big imposing threat while a longer player will come in as a secondary defender to bother the shot with their wing-span.

After Claxton fouled out mid-way through the fourth quarter, the Nets went all-in on spacing out the floor, utilizing small-ball lineups to create space for point guard Spencer Dinwiddie to attack.

Brooklyn struggled with attacking the basket with Gobert on the floor throughout the evening. The team shot 48.1% within four feet of the basket, ranking in the fourth percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass. Oftentimes, Nets players wouldn’t look up at the hoop with No. 27 lurking, continuing their dribble, kicking the ball out, or settling for a fadeaway to create separation.

Brooklyn re-assumed its recent strategy of heavy isolation basketball down the stretch and hunting the opponent’s weakest one-on-one defenders. This had worked in thein mini-winning streak when the Nets attacked Celtics role players and then slower big man Al Horford. They then went at Gordon Hayward when hosting the Hornets two days later. Both games were victories.

But in the closing minutes at Target Center, Brooklyn chose to hunt Gobert, a perennial defender. Dinwiddie — and eventually Mikal Bridges — would try to get shots off over or around Gobert. Dinwiddie acknowledged this strategy postgame, saying: “what happens in the half-court is you kind of go elephant hunting and you try to manipulate the game.”

The Nets’ only field goal in the final 6:15 minutes of action came on a play where Gobert contained Dinwiddie’s pick and roll, but Wolves guard Anthony Edwards left Nets wing Royce O’Neale open for three on a mental lapse — much to the dismay of Green’s teammates.

In OT, the Nets changed their strategy. No longer would Dinwiddie seek out Gobert in pick-and-rolls, instead looking for Wolves power forward Kyle Anderson. Whichever Net Anderson was guarding on any given possession would give Dinwiddie a ball-screen to start the set and force the switch of assignments,

Anderson is earnestly nicknamed “Slo-Mo” for his ability to slow down the pace of his drives and move around his defenders. But that slothful movement carries over to the other side of the court too, where his lateral quickness is, well, lacking.

Dinwiddie was able to consistently get around Anderson to create at least enough separation to scoop in a layup and keep the Nets afloat in overtime. With shooters flanking him, Brooklyn’s coaching staff just kept telling the guard to get downhill and there would be enough space. Now they were hunting an elephant whose ivory tusks actually have value.

“I was pretty committed to going small tonight, to try to get Rudy away from the rim,” Jacque Vaughn commented post-game. “We saw how in Milwaukee, Brook [Lopez] was able to impact the game [with] nine blocks, [and] Rudy has the ability to do the same. So we wanted to spread the floor … we wanted space for our guys to score the ball.”

With the Nets in a 3-point hole, Dinwiddie began to distribute. After beating Anderson off the dribble, Gobert collapsed in the paint and shooters were open from deep.

As Dinwiddie noted, “They had some tendencies that we felt like we could exploit.”

This strategy dates back to Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith’s days together in Dallas, which Bridges mentioned after the game. With Luka Doncic at the helm and Dinwiddie as a secondary creator, the Mavericks played a five-out offensive system with shooting at every position. If one perimeter defender was compromised, there are no good decisions.

“Me and Doe (Finney-Smith) played Rudy in the playoffs last year,” Dinwiddie added. [He’s a] phenomenal rim protector. [But] if you can bring him away from the rim, and he’s got to come chase the block, then you can kick out to the shooter.”

Nic Claxton and Rudy Gobert are two of the NBA’s best defensive players, period. (First and fourth in defensive EPM for centers, respectively). But each player’s strengths take form in different ways. The Nets needed to use Claxton off-ball while Minnesota was at its best with Gobert directly containing the action. In the end, Brooklyn was able to force its opponent away from its preferred coverage — and won the game, 124-123.