CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Around this time last year after a loss at Charlotte, then-Timberwolves guard D'Angelo Russell ended a postgame interview session with a jab at teammate Rudy Gobert.
"He catch the ball, he'll score," Russell said as he expressed his frustration with how Gobert was assimilating into the Wolves offense.
A little more than a year later, Gobert's fit looks as seamless as can be, with Saturday's 123-117 victory over the Hornets one of the highlights of his tenure.
Gobert scored 26 points on 10-for-12 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds while shutting down the rim late to secure a victory that was otherwise a little too close for the 15-4 Wolves.
Gobert, who had been listed as questionable because of a hip injury, had eight dunks, which marked his high in a Wolves uniform.
"Sometimes they throw it and I don't get it, but they kept the confidence in throwing it," Gobert said. "It's fun. I appreciate that."
That trust took time to build, and it took some bumps in the road, like Russell's skepticism, to get to a night like Saturday. It's also probably no coincidence that Gobert's best offensive performance of the season came with Anthony Edwards out for a second consecutive game because of a hip pointer. Those that played heavy minutes around Gobert, like Mike Conley, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kyle Anderson, are more adept at finding Gobert in the flow of the offense than Edwards is. They all capitalized on their chemistry with Gobert.
"I think there's just a level of trust that's developed," coach Chris Finch said. "... It's just understanding the value of Rudy. He's setting so many great screens out there, he creates so much great offense for his teammates: this is the way that we can repay him, is give him the ball when he's open. He did a great job of making really good decisions when he caught it."
Gobert was part of an offensive barrage from his fellow big men that carried the Wolves to victory. There was a lot of skepticism throughout the NBA with the Wolves' insistence on playing two centers on the floor at the same time, all the time, after making the Gobert trade.
Well, for a stretch of the fourth quarter, Finch decided he would one up that strategy and played Gobert, Towns and Naz Reid at the same time. That's because those three were the best players on the floor for the Wolves as the offense around them struggled.
Towns finished with 28 points and five assists. Reid had 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting.
"Naz was a huge lift off the bench," Finch said. "It broke my heart to pull him out, to be honest."
Added Gobert: "People call these guys bigs. They're not bigs, they're just tall. They don't play like bigs."
Gobert paused as he noticed Towns listening in on his answer nearby.
"Kat does a little bit sometimes, when he decides to bully a little bit," Gobert said.
Towns then made a growling sound in approval.
With the Wolves down 106-102 with 4 minutes, 44 seconds to go in the fourth, it was Towns who hit a key three that ignited the Wolves' best stretch of basketball for the night: the final minutes.
A few possessions later, Troy Brown Jr. (nine points) grabbed a key offensive rebound and hit a three to pull the Wolves ahead 111-109. Finch called that the most important play of the game.
It was the start of a 7-0 run that gave the Wolves a 115-109 lead. Conley (14 points, 10 assists) iced the game with a runner for a three-point play with 44.1 seconds remaining to put the Wolves back up six.
There was a reason, Conley said, for why the Wolves were able to execute so well in the final minutes: Gobert.
"We know what he does defensively, but offensively he was great," Conley said. "His gravity allowed for us to do a lot of those things late in the game, the spacing that we had."
Quite the difference in tone from a year ago.