I don’t know if you heard about it on MPR on the way to work like I did, but the Timberwolves were shocked last night to defeat “one of the best teams” in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs. Numerically speaking, it’s not even a matter of “one of” with the Spurs; even with last night’s loss they stand atop the Western Conference with the most wins in the NBA at 49-16.
But it’s a little more complicated than that. The Spurs actually have the second best win percentage behind the Eastern Conference’s top team, the Miami Heat (.754 vs. .774). So even by the numbers the definition of “best” is a little fuzzy and it only gets weirder from there. With Tony Parker sidelined with a sprained ankle and both Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard sitting with somewhat suspicious “sore left knees” last night, the Spurs weren’t putting their best team out there. And yet that exact thing might be what makes them “one of the best” teams in the NBA.
If we’re not just talking about records and championships, but about ethos and approach, the Spurs have been one of the best teams for at least the last decade. And part of that approach is marshaling their resources, controlling their starters’ minutes, and just generally making sure that the team is ready for the postseason over the last quarter of the regular season.
But any team that’s playing well could make the decision based on circumstances to throw a game, to rest their stars. With the Spurs, though, it’s systemic. It’s why they can rest players and yet still compete, as when Popovich left Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green at home for a nationally televised game against the Heat that the Spurs still nearly won. The culture of the Spurs is constructed around this method of dealing with the rigors of an 82-game season, so when they come up against a foe like the woeful Wolves, the decision to rest players is not simply a reaction to what they’re presented with but part of an orchestrated campaign.
That’s weirdly how one of the “best” teams in the league stays the best even when they’re not playing their best players.
And it’s not as if the Spurs were just going to roll over and die. In the first quarter, the Wolves’ offense was stagnant, and Adelman explained the problem with trying to go at the Spurs head on after the game.
“We cannot attack them,” he said. “That’s what we did the first five or six minutes. You just can’t come down with one pass and attack the middle. They just swarm you if you do that. If you move them from side to side, get their defense moving around, now you have a chance to attack them. Especially without Duncan. They had Blair in there and Bonner in there and we can get to the basket against those guys.”
You can see the way the Wolves adapted their play in their rising field goal percentage over the course of the game. The chart below sets their FG% against their shot attempts:
You can see that in the first quarter (the area up to the first vertical line around 22 shot attempts), they struggled to get to 40%. But the last several shots of the quarter began nudging the percentage in the right direction and they kept going through the second quarter when they pushed it north of 50%.
Afterwards, Adelman said, “I thought we were really slow in the way we came into the game. Greg and Derrick especially were rolling to the basket but we said you’re not going to get all the way to the basket against this team. You’ve got to come to a two-foot stop and if someone comes to you, find the open guy. Once we got the floor spaced and we moved it from side to side, we were able to do a lot better.” Tellingly, the shot attempts in the first were distributed fairly evenly between the front- and backcourts, but once the second got going, they mostly came from Barea, Shved and Rubio.
The sharp rise that happens in the third quarter between the red lines (representing their 46th through 54th shots) is particularly noteworthy because it coincides neatly with a stretch from the Spurs that signaled to Popovich it was time to shut it down. The Wolves’ 46th attempt was a missed Rubio layup with 10:29 remaining in the quarter, but they went on an 8-8 tear over the next 5:41 until Barea missed a layup with 4:50 remaining.
Over the same stretch, the Spurs went 2-9, and missed five shots in a row at the beginning of the Wolves’ run. What was an already substantial 53-40 lead had turned into a commanding 71-46 lead by midway through the third. Once the Wolves had that head of steam, they never dipped below 50% shooting again.
Of course, no wrap-up of this game would be complete without some words about Ricky Rubio’s first professional triple-double. Our own Zach Harper over on CBS Sports and Fox Sports North’s Joan Niesen already did a great job of focusing on it, so I’ll just add in my personal opinion: the league needs Rubio to be playing for a good team (and I don’t mean he needs to be traded or anything—just that his play rises to another level when his team is doing well). The grit and determination he’s displayed over the last several weeks as he’s flirted with triple-doubles has been heartening for Timberwolves fans, but as the lead swelled last night, we began to see a little more of his flair:
When you follow one team closely, or even when you get immersed in the NBA overall, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of numbers, players, results, trends and predictions. Without even noticing, you can slip into pockets of micro-attention that can warp or obscure the joy that lies at the heart of why you watch and follow basketball. When Rubio is not just on his game, not just giving his all, but beyond his game and into whatever land of possibilities a double behind-the-back layup comes from, we all benefit as appreciators of the sport. That double behind-the-back is so akin to a repeated motif or phrase in a solo or melody that’s it’s shocking. It moves the song forward, but it also reveals itself better in its repetition. It opens up the game in two directions, and that’s its beauty.
I can appreciate the Spurs playing at their best, can appreciate the system they’ve developed not only on the court, but off the court. It’s what makes them one of the best teams in the NBA almost regardless of their record. Even when they lose like this, they’re playing their game.
And when the Wolves find this vein of play, when they hit 60% of their 3-pointers (even when they only hit 39% of their free throws), it opens the game up for Rubio to be not just competitive, but expressive. This is what we’re talking about when we say we don’t want the Wolves to tank the end of the season. A handful of good showings like this—especially once Love and Budinger are back—could be steps towards building a culture like the one the Spurs already have: a robust, self-assured structure that can absorb losses and wins with equanimity.