Spurs 122, Timberwolves 114: Harnessing chaos and energy with extreme focus

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There was a moment in the third quarter of this game in which the Minnesota Timberwolves had created enough chaos to make the Earth spin off its axis. The ball was flying all over the floor, often with purpose but sometimes with a ricochet’s whimsy. Whenever the Wolves were able to force the San Antonio Spurs into an errant moment, it seemed like Ricky Rubio was insistent on running his opponents ragged. The ball kept flying back up the floor, and it looked like the Wolves were going to try to exhaust the Spurs from being able to execute in the final stretches of the game.

What was interesting about this strategy was the youthful hubris it took for the Wolves to play this way. The Wolves aren’t a very fast team by Tom Thibodeau’s design. They play the 25th fastest pace in the NBA, or another way to put it is they play the sixth slowest tempo. Some of that tempo is due to the sloppiness they show with the ball. Only four teams are worse at taking care of the ball, as the Wolves clock in at 26th in turnover rate. But the Spurs don’t play fast either. The Spurs know their bursts come in strategically designed moments in which it’s simply too much for their opponent. They’re the fourth slowest team in the NBA, and they’re tied for 12th in turnover rate.

The Wolves seemed to believe that making this game go full Vin Diesel with a fast and furious pace was going to get the Spurs off-kilter and for a while, it seemed to be heading that way. But as the Wolves kept trying to get the up-tempo play to go even more up, they met their breaking point, as teams playing against the Spurs tend to do. If you don’t force the Spurs into mistakes, they simply don’t make them. The discipline of a Gregg Popovich system, fueled by the decision-making of Kawhi Leonard and company, becomes a reinforced security door.

You try to kick it down. You try to do that shoulder charge we see in TV shows and movies. But nothing is becoming unhinged in those moments.

The Wolves found that out quickly as the tide turned. In the first half, the Wolves’ pace and aggressiveness were generating foul call after foul call. Rubio went to the line 10 times in the first half alone, and the Wolves lived at the charity stripe. But that only lasted so long and when the free throws weren’t flowing like the San Antonio River Walk, the Wolves needed to figure out how to score against three ridiculous defenders.

The wing combination of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green almost seems unfair defensively. Green is 6’6″ with a 6’10” wingspan and he’s strong. He has a strong base, which allows him to close out hard on the perimeter without giving up much balance to reverse course when an offensive player tries to attack him off the dribble. Kawhi is at the top of the food chain on defense and will eat your face. Having those guys on the Wolves’ second and third most important scorers sets up the Wolves for a lot of decisions to make that involve sacrificing what they’re used to attempting.

Rubio helped with that for some parts of the game as he scored efficiently (21 points on 4-of-9 shooting). Karl-Anthony Towns scored the ball well (27 points on 10-of-18 shooting), and Gorgui Dieng was a great safety valve for them on offense once again. But when the Spurs unleashed their second unit defensive weapon Dewayne Dedmon on the Wolves, it took away Towns’ consistency in the game and left the Wolves relying on defense and carefulness with the ball to stay afloat. The Wolves sank to the bottom.

All in all, it was a valiant effort. Many fans have grown accustomed to rolling their eyes at this. Preseason expectations met with over a decade of futility that doesn’t involve the coach in every way have left this subject of the Wolves quite volatile. But in seeing where the Spurs could turn versus where the Wolves could turn showed the differences between the two rosters.

Thibodeau doesn’t have the depth. Shabazz Muhammad was good for a couple of stretches in this game, but he was really about it. Kris Dunn couldn’t figure out his nine minutes on the floor and Nemanja Bjelica just kept making bad decisions with good intentions on defense. That left a short rotation (yes, I agree Brandon Rush should be playing) and tired but ardent starters trying to contest with the energy of a Dedmon.

Outside of the scoring of LaMarcus Aldridge, the all-around play of Kawhi, and the defense of Green, the Spurs’ starters in this game were fine but not overly impressive. It was the bench that came through for the Spurs. Manu Ginobili was handsy but hyper effective. Patty Mills was a sharpshooter. David Lee somehow made an impact in 2017. But it was Dedmon and his relentless pursuit to make life miserable for Towns and everybody around the basket that turned the game, in my opinion.

Dedmon has been a sleeper weapon for years. He toiled on the bench of the Orlando Magic for about 2.5 years, occasionally getting stints as the backup center but never playing a large amount of minutes. His specialty? Rim protection. Two years ago, shots inside of six feet went in 11.5% less often with him on the court defending. Last year, that number shrunk to 2.5% less often. This year? 6.3% better with him on the floor.

His job is simple: use the motor, the athleticism, and the 7’4″ wingspan to your advantage. He’s not asked to make decisions on offense other than set screens and be a threat at the rim. He’s like a middle management version of DeAndre Jordan. This allows him to focus all of his energy into creating chaos for the other team when they try to make shots inside. He didn’t let KAT get comfortable in the second half. He didn’t let guys go through the lane unchecked.

Having a guy like that is a luxury. Paying a guy like that $3 million a year to be a difference-maker in the second unit is larceny. And it’s the type of theft you hope Thibodeau can pull off in the coming offseasons. It’d be great if someone like Adreian Payne was able to use his physical skills in that way, but that’s simply not the case. For now, the Wolves have to work toward becoming the team you try to shock the system against.

Thibodeau seems willing to gamble the short-term in the hopes of it paying off long-term. That becomes easier to do if/when he fills out the second unit with guys who can simply focus on being destructive.

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5 Responsesso far.

  1. Thibs was feisty in his post game presser. Who asked the question that caused him to snap about being 12th in the league in transition defense?

  2. pyrrol says:

    I agree, it was a valiant effort. I know it’s the Spurs, but it was sort of upsetting to see them toy with us. When they needed to they just clamped down on D coldly, and we got beat 18-0 in a stretch or something like that. I think a key to this game and to future ones was ball movement. Ours was not good. Usually, when Rubio is passing well ball movement becomes somewhat infectious and we look OK in that respect. Tonight it was just Rubio, and some really stagnant stuff or turnover producing bad passes. This made it easy for the Spurs to clamp down when they needed to and grind us to a halt. Meanwhile, our D just tired and couldn’t quite get anywhere. Mostly this was due to the Spurs’ fantastic ball movement. It just tied us in too many knots, got them too many good looks. And their passes are smart, on time and on point. 122 pts isn’t a very good defensive effort, though it seemed like we were trying.

    This game was played under a fog of irony due to the latest Rubio rumors. It’s ironic that the first game after this new round of rumors broke, Dunn was played 8 embarrassing minutes (note the great handle!). Meanwhile, Rubio valiantly tried to herd the guys into competence and played the Spurs like fools, taking 14 free throws and scoring 21 points. He also had 14 assists and some darn good D. I’ve said this before, but that’s a pretty good player there. And we need to start developing some continuity. I don’t understand the desire to find a new floor general midstream–that would be a big step back in team building and continuity. And good luck finding one without giving up major assets. Also, the idea that we just need a different guy to start for a while (for some reason Rubio won’t do for this role) until Dunn takes over as some hybrid of Derrick Rose and John Wall is laughable. I mean, seriously?

    I don’t like a coach who has some pie in the sky ideal of what he wants to do out there separate from who you have on your roster or realistically will be able to get. Thibs is forcing a team that is naturally built to push the ball in transition to play at a deliberate pace. I know, I know, many would argue that it’s a teaching tool to learn solid offense better. But playing to your strengths is how you win and also a great learning experience. If we played with more pace, we’d still have a lot of slow sets in every game to learn ‘the grind’. The way we play now, we don’t learn transition O enough and we don’t play to our strengths. One thing we can do at times is outrun older vet teams. Now, this game we did run at them more. But Thibs has clearly been putting the breaks on that all season. His simple offense was easily dismantled by Pop. We lost to the better team of course, but when is the last time we had an underdog win that made you think to yourself, ‘Thibs out coached ______!’ My answer: Never. Maybe I’m not giving him enough credit for our wins, but it always seems like they players pull it off, and Thibs only coaches notably better than the league’s worst coaches.

    Thibs has some depth. If that’s such a concern, how come Rush, Hill and Jones almost never see serious floor time? Why do we hardly play Aldrich? He loves a short bench. It’s how he works. It has little to do with lack of resources there (although, of course we have a flawed bench).

    I think Dedmon looks like mini David Robinson… The Spurs are famous for their personnel decisions. We can pine for great values to come reinforce our bench like Dedomn, but I don’t think breath holding would be a good idea. To do this with a fraction of the Spurs’ competence is a high degree of difficulty. They bat a good percent, and with the coaching, system and quality core these guys have, their role players tend to look better than they can anywhere else. The Spurs let them go and do their yearly adjustments and those guys go away (often to more prominent roles) and don’t succeed. But as far as evaluating talent, both big and small, I’m not confident in Thibs. His pick of Dunn and continued insistence on him as the future is worrisome. The fact that he consistently seems to ignore Rubio’s positive contributions and seems to be biding his time until he can replace him also shows questionable judgement, particularly when the choices are Dunn, Jones, another draft pick, a free agent that would like to come to this mess, or a trade that will cost us assets. None of Thibs’ bench filler moves seem to have lived up to expectations, except Rush, who he refuses to play. Layden has a role in this too, but it’s becoming clear to me that we gave one guy too much power. Thibs’ single-minded quest to push Wiggins into a go-to star role is also worrisome (this game was another damning chapter is that book). I’ve become convinced that just isn’t Andrew. That’s not what he is. He’s never going to be Butler (who I don’t like that much, but he’s good) or Leonard (who I love, and is carrying an impressive torch).

    So we saw some positive things here despite the loss. But where are we going with all this? What direction is Thibs taking this? I’m getting nervous. I’d like to think someone who’s a walking basketball encyclopedia would not make me nervous, but he’s not done much to earn trust with me and quite a few other fans. I keep waiting for his passion and knowledge and experience to kick in, for him to look wise and in control (like Pop, with his arms crossed on the sideline). We’ll see.

  3. “There was a moment in the third quarter of this game in which the Minnesota Timberwolves had created enough chaos to make the Earth spin off its axis. The ball was flying all over the floor, often with purpose but sometimes with a ricochet’s whimsy.”

    A+ lede, my friend.

  4. Tom says:

    Pop was a clinic on what to do to motivate your team. He played all his guys, got a T, partly to tell his players he was angry and partly to tell the refs that a 2:1 ratio at the FT line is unacceptable. He pushed his stars to step up and he put combinations of his bench out there to confuse and frustrate our young team. After losing a couple games, Pop was going to make sure that these young wolves were going to get the full Spurs effect.

    The great thing about The Spurs is how little regard they have for the new stats league we are in. They shoot midrange jumpers, play very little pick and roll 1:1 Isolation, they play with guys they find off the street and they don’t have heavy minutes quotas for anyone but Kawhi and LA.

    For a couple quarters, the wolves seemed to copy the Spurs with good results. It wasn’t going to last, Thibs had to bring his pet Kris Dunne in to screw up the chemistry (why was Tyus not used after Dunne wet himself in his first six minutes is beyond me) Our bigs got tired of the banging (Cole would have been a bit helpful against Dedmon) and Wiggins looked like he was in cement and Baz cooled off ( To bad we don’t have another 3 and D player to give them a break. Oh wait, we DO!)

    Just once I would like to out coach a team. Not that the results would be better against an elite team like the Spurs, but I have yet to see a move Thibs has made, that wasn’t injury motivated, that makes you glad we got the great Thibs running the show.

    Finally, if Thibs is shopping Rubio and Baz to get a journeyman PG to groom Dunne and I would assume some bench depth, I’m now convinced he will get fleeced and get nothing in return. I’m not against the moving of Baz since he is a FA and not worth the money he will demand, and Ricky deserves a coach that will appreciate his talents, but Thibs will get someone’s headache or more salary and less production than Rubio and more bench players like Hill and Rush to watch our young talent wear down.

  5. enai says:

    42 minutes for KAT, while Rush+Tyus+Aldrich play a combined 0 minutes. How has Thibs not figured out this minutes/rotation thing? And why on Earth can he not give Aldrich 5-8 mins, just so Towns isn’t playing basically the whole game? Frustrating.

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