Spurs 100, Wolves 93: Top 5 Reasons the Wolves Lost

On Tuesday night at Target Center, in a later-than-usual game broadcast on ESPN to a national audience, the Timberwolves lost to the San Antonio Spurs. They lost despite holding a 1-point lead with under a minute to go, and when that happens, every fan has their own favorite reason to point to for why their favorite team came up short.

Since I’m supposed to have more to say here than your average fan, I’ve come up with five and I’ve ranked them in order from least to most important.

Here goes…

5) The Spurs are a much better basketball team than the Timberwolves.

As accurate and meaningful as this reason is, it is admittedly very unsatisfying. But, it’s also worth mentioning. As of this writing, the Spurs have the second best record in the NBA, along with the 6th ranked offense and 1st ranked defense. I don’t need to explain to you how or why Gregg Popovich’s team is elite. We just take it as a given.

On Tuesday, the predictable cast of characters made their presence felt. LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points. Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol each chipped in 11 off the bench. Kawhi Leonard started slow, with just 2 points at halftime. He ended with 22 on 7-13 shooting, including the go-ahead jumper with 54 seconds to play.

More impressive than their individual scoring, however, was their team defense. From halftime forward, they pressured the Wolves extremely hard on the wings, making every basic entry pass an adventure and really disrupting their 3rd Quarter, and late 4th Quarter schemes. It is not a coincidence that the Wolves have had some of their ugliest stretches of offense against the Spurs, in late-game situations, this year. They are incredible on that end of the floor.

4) KAT struggled for three quarters.

Karl-Anthony Towns finished the game with a stat line that’s becoming standard for him, scoring 25 points and pulling down 14 rebounds. Fifteen of those points came in the final period, however, and up until that point he was out of sync. Early in the game he missed a few tip-ins and easy shots that he almost always makes, and then he overcompensated by forcing some ill-advised shots and committing a couple of fouls pursuing rebounds.

The Wolves trailed by 6 heading into the 4th Quarter and did an admirable job of giving themselves a shot to win the game in the final minute. Had Towns played up to his normal (read: extremely high) standards earlier in the game, they might’ve been in position to build a lead instead of try to steal the game at the end.

3) The 38 minutes played by Brandon Rush and Omri Casspi

The Wolves signed Omri Casspi yesterday and he can hardly be blamed for showing a little rust. And, to his credit, he hit a pair of shots and scored 5 points. But he also had 5 turnovers, some of them of the extremely-ugly variety, in 21 minutes of action. Brandon Rush played 17 minutes, didn’t score a point (0-2 shooting) and threw a pick-6 turnover pass directly to Kawhi Leonard.

These two didn’t have to contribute much, but 0 points and a terrible turnover from Rush, and 5 turnovers from Casspi was much too negative for a couple of role players.

2) Winning Time (lack of) Execution

After the game, Thibs had the late-game meltdown on his mind:

“The way we finished, the discipline that’s necessary… all three games on the road (on their last road trip) were winnable. Five minutes to go in each of those games, we had a chance to win em. We’re trying to trick people, and you’re not going to win trying to trick people. It takes discipline, it takes everyone doing their job.”

When pressed for details, Thibs (sort of) elaborated:

“Well, the intent is to try to win, but we’re mistakingly making things up, so the other guys don’t know what the other is doing and it’s leading to mistakes. We have to be able to count on each other when the pressure is greatest, you have to be at your best. You have to be able to execute when the pressure is turned up. Those are the habits that you build day after day. We’re not gonna trick people. We’re not doin’ any of that stuff — floppin’ around — all that nonsense. We have to be disciplined.”

Here were the key plays, after a Towns basket and the foul gave the Wolves a 1-point lead with 2:03 to go in the game:

  • On defense, Towns stole a pass that a driving Gasol intended for Aldridge under the hoop. Fans were cheering. This was the last good thing that happened to the Wolves.
  • Ricky and KAT ran a high pick-and-pop. Towns launched up a 28 footer (with 10 on the shot clock) that chonked hard off the glass. However, because it was such a brick, it kicked toward Gorgui Dieng, who then slapped it back to Ricky to reset the offense.
  • With Thibs barking instructions, they ran another high screen with KAT and Ricky; this time on the left side of the floor. Pau switched onto Ricky who decided to drive baseline hard. With Gasol shading him toward a helping Aldridge, Rubio picked up his dribble and forced a pass to KAT. Tony Parker poked it away and was immediately fouled by Dieng.
  • After taking the ball out of bounds, the Spurs posted up Kawhi on Wiggins. He squared him up from about 19 feet and buried the jumper to take the 1-point lead.
  • Out of a timeout, the Wolves ran another Ricky-KAT high screen and roll. The Spurs defended it well and Ricky erred on the side of caution, pulling the ball back out. Towns was trying to post up Danny Green, who was fronting, when Thibs called another timeout in the middle of the play.
  • Out of the second timeout, they cleared Wiggins (who had 22 points, 12 from the free-throw line) off a screen on the left wing and got Aldridge switched onto him. He had a nice look on a dribble jumpshot he makes regularly, but this one missed. After Gasol collected the rebound, three Wolves (KAT, Gorgui, and Dunn) each recklessly fouled him and needlessly sent Pau to the line where he made 2 bonus free throws with 35.5 seconds to play. (Dunn was whistled for the foul.)
  • Out of their final timeout, the Wolves ran a clever-looking play that set up KAT in the corner. He was somewhat guarded and head-faked instead of attempting the game-tying shot. This seemed to scramble their plans and the chaos ended with Rubio throwing the ball through Gorgui’s unexpecting hands and into Kawhi Leonard’s mitts. This was basically the end of the game.

If you want to point blame for these failures, you could say Rubio was weak with the ball, throwing it away twice. You could say Thibs was micromanaging to a fault, burning 3 timeouts, including 2 on the same 24-second possession clock. You could say Dunn was reckless to foul Pau. You could say that Dunn, while undeniably helpful on defense in this game, was — in combination with Rubio in the backcourt — not a potent enough scoring threat to deserve crunchtime minutes, and that Thibs should’ve gone with Tyus Jones, Shabazz Muhammad, or Brandon Rush instead.

In any event, they folded when it mattered most and that seemed to really upset Thibs, who has said multiple times to the press this season, “The fourth quarter is just DIFFERENT. IT IS.”

1) And finally, their third quarter performance was just atrocious.

The Wolves came out of halftime with a 9-point lead and after a 31-16 spanking, entered the 4th Quarter with a 6-point deficit. It was really the middle of the third when things fell apart. In one four-possession stretch, Rubio, Gorgui, Wiggins and Towns each turned the ball over. Towns committed a pair of loose-ball fouls trying to rebound over Dewayne Dedmon and had to check out earlier than normal for Casspi. Then Casspi came in and committed 2 turnovers (of his 5 total) in a 3-possession stretch. On the other end, Kawhi was heating up after a cold first half. Shabazz Muhammad, who was amazing in the first half and the biggest reason for the halftime lead, wasn’t amazing in the third quarter. Kris Dunn committed a wild charge, blasting into Patty Mills. Manu hit a 3 late in the quarter that actually had the Spurs up 9 points, before Wiggins returned the favor with 3 free throws after Gasol fouled him. The whole period was a mess for Minnesota, and if they wanted to have a good chance to win, their best chance was to play from a lead as they headed into Winning Time.

Anyway, that’s about it. The Wolves were swept for the season by the Spurs this year. Tuesday’s performance wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t satisfying like many of the recent home wins have been. They go on another road trip now, playing at LA (Lakers) on Friday, at Portland Saturday, and then at Indiana on Tuesday.

I’ll send you off on a happy note. Enjoy Andrew Wiggins posterizing Pau Gasol:

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3 thoughts on “Spurs 100, Wolves 93: Top 5 Reasons the Wolves Lost

  1. Other reasons we lost:

    –We were never really in it. The score may have been close at various points in the game, but we really weren’t playing that well, even for us. I will say we were determined, but also sloppy, stiff, uninspired on offense and confused, particularly in crunch time. It’s fair to say this also was not the Spurs’ best game, but they know how to turn it on when they need to which is still a fairly foreign thing for our guys.

    –We’ve lost our confidence. We were playing with a swagger after the all star break. Symptoms included Rubio heat checks and winning when Wiggins had bad games. We just believed and it had the odd effect of making our flow and decision making way better. It was sort of a just do, don’t think look for us but at the same time we played proper team defense and moved the ball very well on offense. Then, we hit some sort of wall and fell apart. And it has been a hard tailspin to pull out of because it has gotten our confidence to a pretty low place. We are playing in a ‘look over our shoulder’ kind of way and don’t seem to believe we can do winning things and find a way when we need to.

    I like the Casspi addition. Of course, too little too late, but maybe its a tryout for next year. He looked rusty, but he’s not been playing and only has had one shoot around with the team so far. He’s not going to be Rush 2.0.

    If you’d never seen the Wolves before, you might think Gorgui was the one who just joined the team and has not been playing…

    Rubio tried hard, but finally looked tired. He did a little of everything, but looked troubled by the Spurs D.

    Towns was frustrated by the size of the Spurs. He got his numbers eventually but it was not an even performance.

    It is possible that Wiggins is pulling out of his slump. It’s a work in progress… But he did some little things and his shot sort of looks like it might go in now. On the other hand, he made no 3’s and shot 33%…

    Brandon Rush is not giving us a thing. It’s pathetic.

    Thibs didn’t play Tyus much in this one and it didn’t help our cause. When he was out there he got assists and made a couple of nice plays on D. Dunn was pesky, but also racked up 5 fouls and really allowed a lot of sagging. Over the years people complained about this with Rubio, but the sag was never truly there in the pure sense because Rubio still picked D’s apart with his passing and teams feared it. They fear nothing from Dunn.

    Speaking of Thibs, the way we played at the end was a comedy of errors, and Andy pointed out in a diplomatic way that poor finish included Thibs’ leadership. I think the word mircromanage was thrown around and I think the timeouts thing was the worst of it. It made us even more choppy and we used up all our timeouts when we still needed one.

    I’m getting out of sorts excited about this new uniform colors thing. I’m dreaming in navy and lime now…

  2. Early in the game, the Spurs were not focused and the wolves could have gotten a bigger lead, but they did move to a ten point lead in the first half, with Shabazz playing well (why they went away from him in the second half is a mystery) and the team not focused on getting the ball to KAT, who I thought had a very good first quarter 10/10, but was shut out in the second and a lot of the third.

    When you play the Spurs, you have to be ready to use their defense against them. When Andrew drove the lane, he was surrounded by three or four Spurs and didn’t try to pass out of it until it was too late. KAT got in foul trouble (I will be so happy the day the refs treat him, like they do LA or Kawhi.) and then was denied the ball until the Spurs had gotten the lead. It would have been a good time to use that double team and have cutters for KAT or the entry pass guy to look for, or rotate the ball and let KAT seal off his man for a pass from the other side, but that would be coaching and team execution, which this team is not very good at.

    Just once, I would like to see Thibs out coach another quality coach. Come up with some plan, that the team executes that anticipated the moves of the other coach. He wastes timeouts and plays guys way past their usefulness on the court (Dunn and last night Casspi: although I think O could be a longer term option for us.) Thibs seems to have Plan A and no Plan B or C. Teams like the Spurs take away Plan A and force you to move to another plan. I would love to see a game where it looks like we have a Plan B

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