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.
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:
— A Wolf Among Wolves (@AWAWBlog) March 22, 2017