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.