There were times last season Rudy Gobert dealt with a sore back, so it might have been too much for him to do what he's been doing the last few games for the Timberwolves — carry them on that 7-1 frame.
That's what he did in Saturday's win over Charlotte, and he did it again as the rest of the Wolves struggled for most of a 102-94 victory Wednesday over the Western Conference-worst Spurs.
Gobert's 16-point, 21-rebound night rescued the 16-4 Wolves from what was nearly their most embarrassing loss of the season to the 3-17 Spurs, but by the end of the night, the crowd was on its feet and chanting "Rudy" as Gobert checked out of the game with 25.1 seconds left.
"It was great. I appreciate the love," Gobert said. "It's fun to watch this crowd embracing us and it's cool to feel it, because we've been through a lot of adversity last year."
Wednesday was another reminder of how far this team has come in a season, specifically Gobert and his perception among the fanbase after a mix of injuries and slowly-developing chemistry hindered him and the team last season.
"This is the best I've ever seen him play," Wolves coach Chris Finch said. "I didn't see him play every single minute he was in Utah, but this is the best I've seen him play on both ends of the ball. He's dominating defensively, and offensively he's quite the force there, too."
Wednesday was a referendum on just how important Gobert has been to the team. In an eight-point victory, Gobert was a plus-31 on the stat sheet, and the Wolves' worst stretch of the night came when he picked up his third foul with 9 minutes, 46 seconds remaining in the second quarter. The Wolves were ahead 27-23 at that point. Gobert didn't play the rest of the quarter and they were down 53-46 at halftime.
"Rudy went off the floor and our defense just fell apart, which can't happen," Finch said.
The Wolves still slogged their way through the third quarter, as everyone seemed a step slow after three consecutive days off. Anthony Edwards was especially rusty in his first game back from a hip pointer that caused him to miss the last two. Edwards finished with 17 points on just 4-for-17 shooting and even though he said wasn't in a lot of pain, it still affected the way he played.
"Scared. I didn't want to do too much," Edwards said. "I think that was the main thing."
Edwards started to shrug that off by the fourth quarter, when the Wolves put together the stretch of basketball that finally put another one in the win column.
The Wolves trailed 77-75 before they went on the deciding 16-2 run. They shot just 30% from three-point range all night, but they saved some important makes for the fourth. Troy Brown (eight points) got the run started with a three. Then Edwards, Naz Reid — who provided key offense off the bench with 15 points — and Brown hit threes on consecutive Wolves possessions. Gobert punctuated the run with a couple of putback buckets to go with a block of Keldon Johnson. The Wolves led 91-79 and they averted disaster.
"Personally, I think I'm the best Rudy I've ever been, and I think there's still a lot of other ways to grow," Gobert said. "I'm pushing myself every day to keep learning, keep getting better and stronger. I'm hungry. I want to win."
The Wolves are obliging. They won their fifth straight and are 15-2 since losing two of their first three to open the season. It's a stretch that wouldn't be possible without Gobert reminding everyone who he is.
"He's actually getting back to the Rudy he was in Utah when it comes to defending the rim," Edwards said. "I think that translates onto the offensive end, him getting rebounds, catching it, finishing. His hands have gotten a lot better from last year to this year. That's a major leap."