This game had a lot of beautiful basketball. Midway through the third it erupted into play after play of move and countermove and this, honestly, should be what every basketball fan hopes the game can aspire to. Look at this layup by Kawhi Leonard:
LOOK AT IT!
And this three in transition by Leonard off of a lovely Boris Diaw pass (which was preceded by a very good pass by Ricky Rubio and shot by Kevin Martin that doesn’t fall):
IT IS SO PRETTY.
And this Love jumper on the play immediately after, where he moves away from Martin’s baseline screen to pop out above a Nikola Pekovic screen for a 3-pointer (which, by the way, he made EIGHT of out of nine he attempted):
I MADE THEM GIFS BECAUSE THEY ARE GIFTS TO BE ENJOYED AGAIN AND AGAIN.
Both the Wolves and the Spurs were scrambling each other’s defenses with precisely the systems they want to run on offense. (I suppose you could make the argument that neither team was doing a great job on defense, which was also at least partially the case. Was it a little video-game-y? Yeah, but that’s honestly my preferred kind of basketball to watch from an entertainment perspective.) Both want ball movement back and forth across the floor to open up gaps, although the Spurs are much more facile with multiple moving parts at this point. And why shouldn’t they be? The core of this team has been together for, well, ever and the front office has made move after move to bring in guys like Diaw and Leonard who A.) slot into well-defined roles and B.) can get enough wiggle room within those roles to develop new angles and possibilities for the established system.
But once again the Wolves showed off that flash and grind system that calls for opening spaces on offense with quick strikes off outlets and in transition along with horizontal ball movement, supplanted by defense that doesn’t shut down the offense so much as carefully stymie it. The problem? Basically, Tony Parker.
Parker is the kind of one-man wrecking crew that the Timberwolves don’t have. Let me be clear: I’m distinctly NOT saying that the Wolves need a guy who can take over, who can run hero ball down the stretch. I’m not even saying that Parker exactly takes over, because it’s not as if he imposes his will on the game the way you see players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Kyrie Irving — for good or ill — do down the stretch. The threat he consistently poses as both a creative scorer and passer makes him a sui generis danger, the kind of player that Ricky Rubio is not because of his inability to finish at the rim.
The Wolves, instead, have to rely almost entirely on interlocking parts: on a guard getting the ball down low to Pekovic, on Love running his man off screens (although he’s shown flashes of creating himself off the stepback), on Martin slipping baseline or popping back out above the arc to receive passes from Rubio. All these moves are linked by passes, and if you break that link, you sever the Wolves’ ability to make those plays.
With about 7 minutes to go in the game, Diaw was given the task of shutting Love down and he did it completely and thoroughly. You can see here the danger of relying on Love to create his own shot:
There’s just very little he can do with Diaw right up on him when he’s isolated. Right after that shot, Manu Ginobili made a bad pass that Love corralled and took all the way to the hoop for a dunk. And that’s great, but that’s taking good advantage of a miscue, not an example of a team’s best beating the other team’s best.
As the Spurs geared up down the stretch, the Wolves simply found themselves out of options, unable to get Pekovic going on the block or pop Love free on the perimeter or rely on Rubio’s drive and kick game or Martin’s shooting to bring it home. That’s problematic, but I don’t find it to be cause for alarm. The Spurs and their players have already been many different things over many different years; they’ve developed flexibility, trust, and almost Buddhist ability to let go of whatever isn’t working at a moment’s notice to try a different avenue. They surveyed the Wolves’ game, saw a lack of rim protection, and started going hard to the rim, taking advantage of that weakness. Parker and Ginobili didn’t take over the game; instead they saw an opening in the Wolves’ system and went at it.
The Wolves are instead midway through the project of trying to become one very good thing. On Friday night, that identity — in its current still-in-progress state — wasn’t enough to beat one of the best teams in the league, even if it was good enough to hang tight with them through much of the game. They’re not suddenly going to develop rim protection; Kevin Love isn’t going to become a one-on-one threat out of nowhere. Maybe flash and grind isn’t enough to beat the Spurs consistently, but it would be better for the Wolves to become supremely comfortable and confident within that identity than to worry about trying to be something they’re not.