Where have you gone, Rudy Gobert?

When the Minnesota Timberwolves traded for Rudy Gobert in July, the belief internally was that they were getting a dominant big man capable of turning the team’s two biggest weaknesses — defensive rebounding and rim protection — into strengths all by himself. He was a generational defensive monster, a long-armed prowler who could turn the Wolves into an unconventionally huge team that would be difficult for the small-ball NBA to handle.

There were always questions about the fit with Karl-Anthony Towns, about how Chris Finch would be able to make such an oversized lineup hum offensively and cover up for some of the heavy-footedness on defense. But the overall collection of talent in a starting lineup that basically swapped out Jarred Vanderbilt for a three-time Defensive Player of the Year was, in their eyes, too good to pass up.

Thirty-four games into their first season with Gobert, the Timberwolves are faced with a much more concerning possibility that goes far deeper than questions about his fit with the current roster. After watching Gobert get outplayed by a rookie center on a two-way contract in a loss to the severely short-handed Miami Heat on Monday night, the Timberwolves have to ask themselves if the Gobert they got in the trade with the Jazz is a shadow of the player who was such a force in Utah for so many years, or just one that needs a little more time to find his way.

Last season Gobert averaged 15.6 points, a league-leading 14.7 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and shot a league-leading 71.3 percent from the field to make his third straight All-Star game. His numbers so far this season are down sharply across the board — 14.0 points, 12.3 rebounds, 66.2 field goal percentage and, most troubling of all, just 1.2 blocks per game, his lowest number since he played sparingly as a rookie in 2013-14. It just isn’t the same guy yet.

The drop-off was startling against the Heat in Miami, where stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo did not play because of injuries. Backup center Dewayne Dedmon was out as well, leaving Erik Spoelstra to start 6-foot-10 rookie Nikola Jovic at center. Max Strus and Caleb Martin, a pair of 6-5 forwards, flanked Jovic in the starting lineup, a trio so small that Gobert should have eaten them alive.

Instead, Gobert managed just 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting with eight rebounds and zero blocked shots in 31 minutes. The only reason he did not play more was that Finch went with Naz Reid for the bulk of the final five minutes, reminiscent of D’Angelo Russell being benched down the stretch of Game 6 against Memphis last season.

When it was all over and the Wolves lost their third straight game, 113-110, Gobert’s numbers were dwarfed by Orlando Robinson, a generously listed 7-footer who came off the bench to score 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting, grab nine rebounds and get a steal and a block in 27 minutes.

The lackluster performance from Gobert led Finch to go with Reid down the stretch. Reid’s defense is not on Gobert’s level, but the Wolves run cleaner offense with him on the floor. Reid finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds in just under 30 minutes.

“He’s been playing great, you know?” Finch said after the game. “At the heart of the zone, he was aggressive, made a lot of really good decisions, played quickly.”

The Wolves were plus-13 in Reid’s minutes and outscored by 14 with Gobert on the floor.

There was a possession in the first quarter when Gobert’s impact was in full effect. He thwarted two different drive attempts by Tyler Herro and still got out to the corner to contest a corner 3. It was the kind of ground-covering performance that doesn’t show up in the box score and prompts Gobert’s biggest supporters to use as an example of the little things he does to help a team win.

But at this point of a season in which the Wolves just can’t seem to gain any traction, they need a player they gave up five draft picks, a pick swap and three quality role players for to land to start doing the big things as well.

No one expects him to be a 30-point scorer, but Gobert was so much bigger than anyone the Heat could throw at him on Monday night. He needs to make them pay for playing as small as they did, but he and the Timberwolves couldn’t take advantage. Part of that is on his teammates. Russell and Anthony Edwards seem to have trouble finding him in the halfcourt against smaller defenders, and the team turned the ball over 22 times on Monday night to short-circuit so many of their possessions practically before they even started.

But Gobert’s struggles with catching passes from his teammates in traffic, securing rebounds that are contested and blocking shots to intimidate opponents have made it difficult for him to inspire faith from his teammates. The ball moves better on offense and the defense is more active, though not as effective, when Gobert is off the floor. The Timberwolves simply cannot afford for that to be the case.

The signs were ominous early when Robinson put up 10 points and six rebounds in the first half to Gobert’s six points and five boards. At least twice in the first half, Robinson out-dueled Gobert for offensive rebounds that turned into putbacks for him, setting a tone of intensity for the undermanned Heat.

It wasn’t just on the boards where Gobert was a step slow. Coming off a game in Boston where the Celtics pulled him away from the basket to render him ineffective, the smaller Heat just decided to go right at him, unafraid of a man with the reputation as one of the game’s great shot blockers.

The Heat outscored Minnesota 64-52 in the paint, inexcusable when giving up so much height. Miami also won the second-chance points battle 16-13 thanks to a 13-8 edge on the offensive glass. This needed to be a game where Gobert flexed his muscles on the glass, pushed the smaller Heat around and put up a monster night like he did against the Lakers in October (22 points, 21 rebounds), the Pacers in November (21 points, 16 boards) or the Jazz (22 points, 13 boards) in his homecoming to Utah earlier this month.

Gobert has had enough big nights — he has grabbed at least 20 rebounds in a game four times this season — that the Wolves can reasonably point to them to say that he is still capable of controlling games like he always has. Most like to say that the NBA season doesn’t even start until Christmas, and the Wolves (16-18) are still only 2 1/2 games behind Sacramento for the No. 6 seed in the jam-packed Western Conference.

It is not time to panic, especially with Towns out. But Gobert’s numbers in aggregate and his inability to impose his will in Miami are the kind of startling snapshots that made his acquisition, and the price the Wolves paid for it, such a questioned move from the moment it was made. So far, all of those doubters have been right.

Watch Gabe Vincent go right at Gobert four different times in the below compilation of clips without any hesitation and with little challenge from Gobert, who appears to be torn between the driver and the roll man, a situation he owned in nine seasons in Utah.

There are so many people across the league, and increasingly in the Timberwolves’ pain-stricken fan base, who believe the move was destined to fail. Through all of the uneven play in the first third of the season, the Wolves have maintained that they just need more time to acclimate to playing an entirely different style with Gobert than they did last season.

There is certainly some merit to that. Towns and Gobert hardly played together at all in training camp and the preseason, then only got 19 games together before Towns strained his calf in Washington on Nov. 28. Anthony Edwards is still learning the nuances of lob passes in the pick-and-roll, and there are encouraging signs that it is improving. But Russell has shown little inclination to trust Gobert for much of the season.

The few times he did on Monday, it did not work out. In the first half, Russell tried to thread a pass to him in transition. It was a tough one to handle, but one that more nimble centers would have a decent shot at catching. It went off of Gobert’s right hand for a turnover.

Trailing 72-63 in the third quarter, Russell finally lobbed it down low to Gobert against some much smaller defenders. He did catch this pass, but promptly traveled to turn the ball over again.

Early in the third quarter, the Wolves had Gobert all alone in the paint against a scrambling Heat defense. Jaden McDaniels missed a corner 3. Gobert rose up for the offensive rebound in between three Heat defenders, but he didn’t grab it with force and Kyle Lowry knocked it out of his hands.

The inability to play with force has been a consistent issue for Gobert this season. Whether it is the new surroundings, new teammates and new coaches that are causing the tentativeness, some fatigue from playing in EuroBasket taking some of the juice from his legs or the fact that he turned 30 in June, the Wolves have not seen enough of the Gobert who was so effective in Utah.

There may be some frustrations among teammates for Gobert’s lack of production. But there is plenty of blame to spread around.

Russell may not fully trust Gobert with his slick passes, but he has proven to be just inconsistent this season. He had just 13 points and eight assists on Monday to go with six turnovers, many of them stemming from a too-casual approach to possessions against the hard-playing Heat.

He was slow to react on defense for much of the night, getting beat down the court in transition and losing his man in the halfcourt.

This turnover in the fourth quarter was a killer, and he didn’t exactly make it tough on Haywood Highsmith to finish the play.

And it’s true that Gobert has had trouble handling his passes much of the season. But on the final play of the game, when the Wolves had a chance to tie the score and send it to overtime, Russell couldn’t catch an inbounds pass from Jaden McDaniels. It was a tough one to handle, but a pass that Russell appeared to get both hands on before it slipped out to doom the play.

Finch has few options available to him with all of the players dealing with injuries, but the decision to have McDaniels inbound that pass in such an important moment while the veteran Austin Rivers was on the bench deserves scrutiny. McDaniels’ height allows him to see over the defense more easily, but he has not been put in that spot very often, and he rushed the pass a second before Reid broke open for 3 on the backside of the play.

Edwards was terrific on offense, putting up 29 points, seven assists and six rebounds to go with two steals and a block. But he also turned the ball over eight times and couldn’t do enough of this to make the Heat pay for their lineup choices.

There are no must-win games in December, but this one was pretty close. The Wolves are in the middle of a gauntlet in the schedule, having played Dallas twice (with one win), at Boston (loss) and with games still to come at New Orleans on Wednesday and at Milwaukee on Friday. With the Heat playing without Butler and Adebayo, this was the one game on this road trip that they needed to get.

Yes, they were playing without Towns (calf), Kyle Anderson (non-COVID illness), Taurean Prince (shoulder) and Jordan McLaughlin (calf), four of their top nine players. All four bring attributes to the table that are sorely needed, from Anderson’s playmaking to Prince’s shooting to McLaughlin’s ability to run an offense. And there isn’t enough time to chuckle at the absurd suggestion that frequently popped up after he went down in Washington that this team would be better without Towns on the floor.

But this is a roster that was supposed to be able to withstand an injury or two. They still had Edwards, Russell and Gobert in the starting lineup, a former No. 1 overall pick putting things together in his third season, a $30 million point guard and a $38 million center. That should have been more than enough to beat an aging Lowry, an erratic Herro and Max Strus.

Instead, it was a 22-year-old undrafted rookie from Fresno State who had the greater impact on Monday night in Miami. Gobert is on the books for four years and $169 million. If the Wolves cannot find a way to consistently unlock a version of him that is much closer to the force he was in Utah, one of the most heavily debated deals of the summer will be no debate at all.

(Top Photo: David Berding/Getty Images)

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