A much better game than the drubbing the Minnesota Timberwolves suffered at home against the San Antonio Spurs last week, last night’s tilt was a perfect example of the gap between a promising team and a genuinely good one.
Against a team like the Spurs, the Wolves need just about everything to go right, including some unexpected things. Last night, that came in the form of an overall 10-for-13 game from Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett, giving them both season highs and their first double-digit scoring performances of the year. Simply put, they’re not there to score and other teams know this. As such, Garnett’s surprisingly hot midrange shooting from his pet spot between the free throw line and the top of the key was a big part of the Wolves jumping out to a 10-0 lead to start the game.
But the Wolves weren’t the only team with a surprising big man with the Spurs’ Boban Marjanovic wrapping up his work as a James Bond henchman early enough to contribute 17 points on perfect 7-for-7 shooting. At 7-3, the dude is just patently ludicrous on the court. Unlike Kristaps Porzingis, who looks a little Reed Richards with his elongated limbs, Marjanovic has some beat on his bones. At first, it just looks like he’s Ersan Ilyasova, but then you realize the guy you think is Harrison Barnes is actually the 6-11 Gorgui Dieng. On top of the size, he’s got a soft, quiet touch right around the rim that just adds insult to injury since he could probably just place the ball in the bucket like a can of green beans above the oven. It makes me glad he’s on the Spurs because he seems exactly like the kind of giant, multi-skilled player another team would either take and try to make into a cornerstone starter (*cough* Darko Milicic *cough*) or get and then not know what to do with. But the Spurs are handling his rookie year perfectly — of course — unveiling him like an end-level boss off the bench for no more than 15 minutes a game and putting him in a position to succeed.
Plus, look at these hands:
Also very Spurs? Gregg Popovich getting tossed after a double technical with 1:13 left in the first half. It happened so quickly that I didn’t even see specifically what he was arguing about, but the actual call that was at issue is probably immaterial. Pop probably either had early dinner reservations somewhere or wanted to get to bed at a reasonable hour or maybe wanted to light a fire under his team, who had been playing well down to the level of their competition.
The sluggish start that spurred (yes, I know) Popovich’s ejection also galvanized the Wolves, who looked genuinely good through three quarters. Check out this beautifully geared defensive possession from midway through the second:
You can ignore the homer-ific Spurs booth there and just appreciate how well the Wolves switch and move around the floor to force a bad shot. That alone is a far cry from where they were last year, and it doesn’t so much have to do with something as straightforward as adding a good defensive big like Towns as it does with Garnett and Prince and Rubio quarterbacking the whole thing and everyone closing out.
In fact, the thing that really separates the Wolves playing well this year from playing badly seems to be floor spacing and floor discipline. Sure, you need guys to hit shots (and especially — for a team as dependent on the line as the Wolves — their free throws, which they did not do last night) but it seems like when the Wolves are doing well you can see that they’re controlling the space on the floor on both the offensive and defensive ends. Where this breaks down the most is when they have too many guys crashing the boards or guys floating in no-man’s-lands between spots. You could make the argument that pretty much the entire thing when it comes to basketball is opening and closing spots on the floor and doing it according to your design, rather than the other team’s. When the Wolves are doing that well, the 3-point shooting stuff doesn’t matter as much. It might be making it harder to do, but their spacing when things are working is actually not that bad.
Where the 3-point shooting thing really hurts them is down the stretch in tight games. As the Wolves faltered in the fourth and the Spurs righted the ship, the Wolves just couldn’t put the pressure on with shooting. The Wolves were 8-for-21 in the final quarter, and only three of those shots were 3-pointers, and all of them by Zach LaVine, and all of them were of the desperation variety. I know the standard refrain on 3-pointers from the team, which is that they don’t have the shooters, but they also need to run action that gets guys looks and not just big wide curls at the end of games.
The Wolves have attempted 80 corner 3-pointers this season (a third of the total attempts by Golden State, by the way), and 19 of those have been by Shabazz Muhammad, who’s hitting them at a 47.4% clip. You’ve got two gifted passers in Rubio and Towns, plus Nemanja Bjelica has shown good court vision if not always awareness. It just baffles me that you wouldn’t try to manufacture those looks more consistently throughout the game so you could go to them down the stretch.
In all, it was another loss on the road to the Spurs in a building where the Wolves have lost 21 of their last 22 games and where the home team hasn’t been beaten since March of last year. Sure, the Spurs only had to play at about 60% to beat the Wolves playing about 90% through three quarters, but for a developing team, you’ll take strong road efforts like this.