There are lots of ways to lose to the San Antonio Spurs. You know this already. Tim Duncan might hit a buzzer-beating three. Manu Ginobili might perform a series of increasingly uncanny bodily contortions, each ending with a basketball feathering through the hoop. That legendary defense might incrementally, unobtrusively increase its constriction, leaving you, at games end, suddenly suffocated and dry. The Wolves are getting to know these facts intimately: you might be called for a phantom three-point foul; you might be massively out-coached in the games waning moments. The list is endless.
But in all their years of monolithic fourth-quarter domination, not to mention relentless, bug-eyed ref-baiting, I swear I have never seen the Spurs draw five technical fouls on their opponent in the span of 30 seconds. But this happened on Tuesday night, in a fairly crucial moment of the third quarter, the Wolves having just pared a double-digit Spurs lead to six. And the best part: through some trick of alchemy or cold fusion or psychedelic imagination, two of those techs were called on two different Timberwolves simultaneously. By the same official! It was as if every subatomic particle of Stern-ian behavior modification became concentrated in Ken Mauer’s whistle in one decisive moment. At this very instant, somewhere in between Kurt Rambis being ejected for arguing said act of visionary officiating and Kevin Love getting t’d for slapping his hands together, this game entered an altered zone. Ginobili hit four consecutive free-throws. Bill Laimbeer was suddenly an NBA head-coach. The smiling, fired up Wolves embarked on a run of brazen, occasionally inspired play.
To be clear: what happened at 8:36 of the third quarter was insane. But let’s also be honest with one another. After three games worth of close calls, the Spurs seem to have finally mastered the vexing (for them, somehow) art of playing the Wolves. That their approach to this task was so nonchalant and that they never managed that one crushing run should not obscure the fact that the Spurs utterly owned Tuesday’s game from start to finish.
The reason is simple and it has nothing to do with technical fouls. Said the freshly ejected Rambis:
They execute their sets, they keep their spacing and they move the basketball. It’s very difficult to defend the myriad actions that they have, with the talent that they have, when they’re playing that way. You’ve got to be on your toes, ready to execute everything. [You've got to be] very exacting, very purposeful. And you’ve got to be relentless with it because you’ve got to do it for 24 seconds and then you’ve got to finish it off with a rebound.
Needless to say, Kevin Love’s fanatical board-work notwithstanding (another 20-20: boooring), the Wolves do not do any of these things. They still struggle to execute their sets and move the ball. Their guards and bigs were still fairly hapless against the pick-and-roll, setting in motion a depressing chain of indecisive help and late rotations that invariably culminated in uncontested Spurs shots. Their starting point guard is still an NBA backup; and their backup point guard is still playing unwatchable basketball.
As the second half wore on and the burst of passion that had followed the tech bonanza slowly faded, a depressing pall descended on the arena, like the melancholy that comes over a person on that last, exhausted day of a particularly meaningful vacation. The Spurs’ displays of sublime team basketball have grown so commonplace, so routine as to become as plainly factual as a chilly, gray Monday morning. Just the team to temper your rushes of optimism with medicinal doses of everyday life. Doesn’t feel good.