This is what experience looks like when it collides with youth. Despite missing Tony Parker, the San Antonio Spurs started an NBA Finals MVP, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and an NBA All-Star — and that’s just Kawhi Leonard. The rest of their starters boast 11 All-Star appearances and 3 championships. Given the deep, rich structure of the team, it doesn’t even really matter that they started Nicolas Laprovittola at point guard — living proof that that the Spurs can pluck any indie rapper from his barista job and make him a competent NBA player.
(And listen, Argentinean Laprovittola stans: I don’t speak Spanish, but I understand that he won the FIBA Americas League championship in 2014. Making light fun of his hair and beard and tattoo is just a way for me to cope with the fact that the Spurs can spin just about anything into gold.)
I mean, one of the Spurs most outwardly useless players is David Lee, a two-time All-Star and member of the 2015 champion Golden State Warriors. The Wolves most outwardly useless player is Adreian Payne, who’s just barely a two-time Adreian Payne. The Spurs are confident enough in the structure of their team that they can bring Patty Mills — who I’m confident would handily start on the Wolves under Thibodeau — off the bench when Parker is injured and let MC LaProveItToYa run the show. Oh and Patty Mills just had a smooth 15 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds in 26 minutes, ending up at a team-high +29.
This was, in short, not a game with the level of drama we’ve come to expect from recent outings, with big leads and massive collapses. Instead, the Wolves got out to a quick 9-point lead midway through the first, at which point Gregg Popovich subbed in a platoon of four bench players because Popovich is the kind of coach who can do that without it seeming desperate. This is the scaffolding the Spurs have built meticulously over years and years. If the starters aren’t pulling their weight, they’re going to sit and the bench will go to work.
With a minute left in the first half, the Spurs took a one-point lead. They went into the break down three, but nobody seemed unduly concerned about it on the San Antonio side. In the third, Kawhi Leonard started cooking, scoring 10 points on 3-for-3 shooting from the field and 4-for-4 shooting from the line. He ended the night with 31 points in 35 minutes on 11-for-15 shooting. Not gaudy — it was no 60 points in 29 minutes like Klay Thompson put up last night — but perfectly Spurs-y.
When Flip Saunders was in Thibodeau’s current position, he would often mention the Spurs as a model for what the Wolves culture should become, but now, it’s not at all clear what direction the Wolves are headed as a team, culture-wise. Their culture isn’t going to change (or really, given their history, develop) overnight, but it could go a number of ways. Thibodeau’s Bulls teams were hard-nosed. Popovich’s Spurs are tough, but in a quiet way. The Clippers are assholes. The Grizzlies grind you down. The Warriors are flashy.
In some ways, Towns seems to read as someone who would work on the Spurs in the mold of Duncan, although Garnett also brought some fire out of him. But Wiggins is a different kind of player, maybe akin to Leonard, but seeing Leonard definitely makes you appreciate how far he still has to go. LaVine is cocky and edgier than any of the other starters. Can all these personalities find their way into an identity together? If you asked them, I feel like Towns would say he has to be that leader, the one to set the tone. LaVine would probably crack a joke. Wiggins probably wouldn’t say anything. Somehow, that all has to become one answer, but it wasn’t happening tonight.
There’s a reason the Spurs were 12-0 on the road coming into this game, and are now 13-0. The Wolves’ win against the Hornets was a step in the right direction, a hint that the team has the fiber it takes to come together and overcome big odds. Tonight, that grit never showed up, and it’s going to have to if they’re going to grow.
Sidenote: Thank you Ben Schleuss for suggesting I make an Eraserhead Photoshop of Spurs forward Kyle Anderson. I have little doubt there is a lady in his radiator.