Timberwolves 94, Spurs 104: We all walk the long road
A pair of white and blue Nike Hyperdunks lie in front of Greg Stiemsma’s ice-wrapped legs in the Timberwolves’ locker room. The tongue is branded with a nickname: B. ROY in all caps. But this isn’t some handmade tribute; these shoes were made by Nike for Roy.
“He’s got a ton of them,” explains Stiemsma, nodding his head towards the locker where Roy hasn’t been since November 9 when he played his fifth game as a member of the Timberwolves and likely his last game as a pro. Roy isn’t using them, so he passed them along.
Another pair of the shoes stands in front of Nikola Pekovic’s locker, one of them knocked to the side and the B. ROY on each tongue blacked out with Sharpie. As he dresses, he answers questions. Are these Brandon’s shoes? “Yup.” You put the marker over them? “Yup.” His clipped responses carry some kind of weight, but it’s hard to tell just what.
Shoes are a frequent topic of discussion in the locker room: appreciation for J.J. Barea’s bright red kicks, questions from Derrick Williams about what kind of boots he should get. But the players are reluctant to talk much about these Hyperdunks, scrounged from a fallen brother-in-arms on this long campaign beset by so many losses, both to other teams and to injury.
It’s not difficult to see what felled the Timberwolves in this game against the Spurs, and it’s not all that different from what’s happened many times before. There was no logey start, no need for a furious comeback, though. Instead, the Wolves hung tough for a long time, withstanding 31 points from Tony Parker and a barrage of 3s from Danny Green, who went 8-for-12 from the arc. Even without Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs were going to play tough, and Adelman said as much before the game, explaining how what Parker, Duncan and Ginobili do for the Spurs goes well beyond their on-court contributions.
“Those guys have a real effect on the other guys because there isn’t any messing around: they’re going to play the game their way,” he said. “The young guys learn that and they find a way. I think that’s what [Gregg Popovich] does: he finds a way to give a guy a spot and show him what it takes for him to help the team. It doesn’t have to be the hero effort, it just has to be a consistent effort. That’s what makes them so good.”
You can see it most clearly in Parker himself, who came into the league as a raw 19 year old, a late first-round pick with a shaky jumper. Within Popovich’s system, he’s grown into an All-Star, a Finals MVP, and a player who’s often in the conversation for league MVP. He still doesn’t look like he should be able to get to the rim like he does, but there he is, slithering through traffic not just with aggression and speed but with change of pace and slickness, like his body is coated in beurre blanc.
But Parker’s success hasn’t just grown from his own development as a player. It’s also rooted in the culture of the Spurs, which Adelman alluded to. As the team shifted away from Duncan, it shifted towards Parker’s skills and Popovich opened the offense up, adjusting the team to a faster tempo on the fly. The solid groundwork established over years of success is what makes that possible—a kind of stability that this season’s Timberwolves can only dream of.
At the beginning of the season, it wasn’t entirely clear what the starting lineup—the backbone of the 2012-13 Timberwolves—was going to be. If Brandon Roy’s knees had held up, he likely would have been the starting shooting guard. They were waiting for the return of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, but they would obviously be part of the squad that would start and finish games. Had Alexey Shved not been pressed into service so quickly by Roy’s absence, he might have stayed on the bench longer, but it’s become clear by this point that the best balance of developing the Wolves’ future and giving them a shot to win now would mean starting Ricky Rubio, Alexey Shved, Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic.
That lineup has played five minutes together this season.
It gets worse. According to NBA.com, the league’s most-used lineup is the Pacers’ starting lineup of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert. They’ve played 795 minutes together this season. Second and third on that list are the starters for the Blazers and the Thunder, who have played 764 and 756 minutes together respectively.
The Timberwolves top five most-used lineups have totalled 589 minutes this season, as shown in the chart here:
What should stand out is that three of the players that appear in these most-used lineups (Kevin Love, Malcolm Lee and Brandon Roy) are out, two of them for the season. Their fourth most-used lineup includes a player who hasn’t played since early November. Left with the second and fifth most-used lineups as current options, we can see they’ve posted an average net rating of almost -10 (or -7.8 weighted roughly for minutes).
By way of contrast, the top five most-used lineups for the Spurs (who actually spread their minutes out more or less by choice in much the same way the Wolves have been forced to by injury) have an average net rating of +10.
His knees still bandaged in ice, those shoes willed to him by Roy still in front of him, I ask Stiemsma if they learn things from playing an opponent like the Spurs, if they can see something in them on the court that shows them a way forward. “I would hope so,” he says. “It all comes down to execution. They got a couple of big baskets late. That’s what we need to do, that’s what the winners do, that’s what the top teams in the league do. When they have so many different weapons, somebody’s gonna make a play at the end.”
That someone was Danny Green, and you can find the hinge of the game in his play from 7:20 to 4:07 left in the fourth quarter. After the Wolves went up 79-77 on a jumper by Mickael Gelabale, Green drilled a 3, his sixth of the night. Shved missed a jumper and Green made a layup after rebounding a Kawhi Leonard miss. Shved missed a 3, then Barea missed a 3. The Spurs called a timeout and the lineups were shifted, but it didn’t matter: Green drilled another 3 before Rubio finally came through with a layup. The Spurs response? Green’s final 3-pointer of the night, putting the Spurs up 88-81. The Wolves never drew closer than 5 again.
And Danny Green is a guy who was waived by the Cleveland Cavaliers. When Stiemsma says the Spurs have so many weapons, it’s like jealously eyeing a guy’s 2 x 4 with a nail through it. Green’s a weapon because the Spurs made him one. Are the guys who were out there carrying the load for the Spurs last night—guys like Green, Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard (who had a double-double) and Nando de Colo (who had 6 assists in 13 minutes)—so demonstrably different from guys like Dante Cunningham, Stiemsma, Shved and Luke Ridnour? They’ve all shown themselves capable of having big nights, but the shifting responsibilities incurred by injury mean they have to do it again and again.
The challenge is that there’s a long road between where the Wolves are now and where the Spurs are, and right now it’s littered with bodies. Over the last few weeks, the way the Wolves players and coaches talk about the team has become increasingly littered with wall-building words about stepping up, playing hard, trusting each other. They’re girding themselves for a tough slog through the rest of the season, hoping it builds them instead of breaks them, taking their fallen comrades’ shoes for support, for warmth.