2017-18 Season

Spurs 107, Wolves 99: Welcome Back.

Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photos by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Minnesota Timberwolves fell to the San Antonio Spurs 107-99 Wednesday night in a game that played out almost exactly as many thought. The Wolves’ offense was rusty, the defense was at many times haphazard, and the Spurs played with a fundamentally soundness and veteran savvy that has become synonymous with their #brand.

Despite playing without superstar Kawhi Leonard (still in treatment for quadriceps tendinopathy) or veteran Tony Parker (recovering from surgery to repair a ruptured quadriceps tendon), the Spurs were able to get the job done against the Wolves by relying on the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge (25 pts/10 reb/4 ast) and Danny Green (17/4/2/2 stls/2 blks). New acquisition Rudy Gay and second-year point guard Dejounte Murray were also bright spots for the Spurs and exploited many of the matchups posited against them. Gay was able to bully his defender in the post on more than one occasion for an easy bucket or two and Murray made mincemeat out of Jeff Teague for most of the night.

Andrew Wiggins led all scorers with 26 points (to go along with five boards, a dime, and a single turnover) and looked extremely comfortable in his newfound role as the quote-unquote third wheel. He connected on open threes (4/6 overall), cut through the lane for a few dunks and attempts at the rim, and got to the line nine times.¹ Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Wiggins off-ball defense still needs improving (he lost his man a few times and was late on a few rotations), but he did a pretty good job on-ball against the Spurs as he is typically wont to do.

Nemanja Bjelica, Jamal Crawford, and Tyus Jones all provided solid minutes off the bench, helping the Wolves stick with the Spurs in the second half. Bjelica logged a team-high +/- of +15 (9 points, 3 boards, 1 assist), Crawford hit a few big shots down the stretch and added five assists, and Jones provided a steadying force at the point guard position as the clock wound down. None of the three bench players mentioned provided any play that particularly stood out other than they simply got the job done. That kind of presence was missing last season off the bench and it was encouraging to see it manifest against one of the league’s premier teams.

Not only were the Wolves not blown out in the second half, but they displayed a poise while the game was close in the fourth quarter that was missing for the vast majority of last season; often the Wolves would find themselves collapsing under the pressure of a tight game with time slowly ticking away. However, that didn’t happen tonight. Although the Wolves ultimately came up short, they were able to keep the game close with a few rugged stops as the fourth quarter wound down. All they needed was a few of their open looks to fall and we may be talking about this game differently.

However, that’s about where the obvious positives for the Wolves stop. Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Teague looked…off…within the offense. The ball was stagnant at times and often it felt as if the Wolves didn’t know what they should (or shouldn’t) do with and/or without the ball in their hands. The best way to put it is that the offense simply looked stilted for large chunks of the game.

Towns looked frazzled early on as he was trying to feel things out and establish himself on offense and on defense. He wasn’t out of control, per se, but he looked to be shying away from contact in the post early on and proceeded to force a few shots when he thought a foul might’ve/should’ve been called. Towns’ defense was erratic as well, though Aldridge and Pau Gasol aren’t’ exactly pushovers. Still, the Wolves need Towns to take that next step on defense in order for the overall team defense to improve. It should come with time, but the clock is ticking. Wolves’ fans shouldn’t be at DEFCON 1 or anything, but Towns’ defensive progression will be interesting to monitor as the season goes on.

Taj Gibson played some solid defense, but was only 3/11 from the field; he shouldn’t really be taking 11 shots a game when the Wolves’ offense is running optimally. Teague was a revolving door on defense and struggled to get in much of a flow on offense. He played only two more minutes than Jones (25 compared to 23) and was benched in favor of Jones during the fourth quarter. Gorgui Dieng had anything but his best night on both sides of the ball and Shabazz Muhammad played like a black hole that was devoid of a gravitational pull.

All of this is to say that the matchup with the Spurs showed just how much the Wolves still need to grow on both sides of the ball. Butler, Towns, and Teague (and I’m sure we’ll still see nights with Wiggins, too) need more time to gel and figure out how to play with each other on offense. The defense needs to continue to shore up communication, make their rotations crisper, and improve their awareness of players who don’t have the ball in their hands. This applies to the bench as well.

The Wolves will improve as the season progresses and they played well enough against the Spurs to beat a lesser team. Asking a newly formed team to congeal over three preseason games and then turn around and beat one of the league’s best teams on the road on opening night is a tough ask. We’ll have plenty of time to nitpick and discuss the Wolves’ struggles and successes over the coming months, but for tonight let’s just enjoy that the NBA is officially back. Welcome back.

  1. Sure, he only made four, which isn’t good, but I’m more encouraged that he found ways to get to the line tonight. He’s consistently been a 75% free throw shooter for his career and is prone to streakiness from the line. Some nights he’ll go 4/9, others 8/9. The most important thing right now his him simply shooting as many free throws as possible and tonight he did that well.
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12 thoughts on “Spurs 107, Wolves 99: Welcome Back.

  1. It’s hard to resist a sarcastic comment about ‘hand picked’ Teague here, but frankly Thibs was bizarrely experimental with rotations in this game. It came as a bit of a shock to me, as Thibs is anything but creative and instinctual, normally. But in a way it makes sense. We only had 3 preseason games against 2 opponents with a team that is full of new faces. In a way, this is still the preseason for us, maybe for a while.

    Did the wacky lineups and unpredictable rotations result in slapdash fun? No. This was not a very fun game to watch. We are a bit plodding on offense. We didn’t get out and run much, and our ball movement sucked. On D, we had the usual issues. That’s a project that’s going to take some time. Offensively, we were far from perfect last year, but it almost feels like we messed with a good thing. We had some flow last year that is still baking in the oven this year and given the talent increase that’s going to be frustrating if it doesn’t improve quickly. One of my secret fears for this team is that, in the process of getting better (how much better?) they will somehow become a less fun team to watch. Tonight was only the first game, but that fear came true for one game. I fully expect we’ll get more fun to watch soon. But will Thibs make us play a plodding style of offense that is dull even when we a clicking and have chemistry developed?

    In the preseason, Wiggins looked lost in his new role. So it was odd to see him be the only guy who looked totally comfortable on offense. That said, part of this is because he basically had the same role as last season this game, but I can’t imagine that’s the plan going forward. In other words, guys sucked, no one got on much of a roll and so Wiggins carried the offense in a way that won’t get victories going forward (or in this game for that matter. The dude was -19!). Butler was weirdly off and almost tentative on offense. Towns struggled, but it’s a testament to his talent that he gets 18 and 13 with 53% shooting on an obviously off night. That’s the kind of talent that can carry a franchise. Butler… you think he’s that type of talent, but his off game was 12 and 4 on 41%… I expect him to be much better very soon, but perhaps this is a sign his adjustment will take longer than the plug into Thibs would suggest.

    Speaking of Thibs, I got to wondering… Is it good to have a D guru (supposedly) who more or less is not a good offensive coach and tends to use a plodding, old fashioned style of offense? Defense wins championships, but this is a league where not only does Mike D’Antoni have a job, but has teams that have impact in the playoffs. I guess what I’m saying is that just offense can get you pretty far in this league with some ease, but just defense is a hard sell. Part of it is the 3-happy, pace pushing style, and part of it is the gentle officiating that protects offensive players to do their thing more than at any time in NBA history. But given that, will Thibs put us in a good position? This is his test year.

    Jazz watch: They have much the same issue we have with coming together after changes. And gelling still has a long way to go. But Rubio played alright and put up some numbers, and the Jazz got a win against Denver. I’m really high on Donovan Mitchell and Utah chose to start him and have Hood come off the bench. I think Ingles is kind of a fun player.

  2. I agree with most of the website assessments that this was basically a preseason game, but I couldn’t help wondering if the wolves could ever be as polished offensively as the Spurs were last night. How many times did the Spurs pass up a good shot for a better one, while the Wolves passed up a good shot to drive into trouble? We played into Gasol and LMA strength by driving to the basket to get our shots blocked. While the Spurs hardly dribbled and got Our guys helping out inside and leaving Gasol and Ginobili and others open for threes. Wiggins must learn to shoot FT or it will be hack an Andrew all year. Teague didn’t look $5 mill a year better than Ricky last night.

  3. If only the wolves had a taller defensive minded point guard that could have slowed down Murray even a little bit. He would also need to be unselfish to help facilitate the offense and get the main scorers out of their funk. I can’t think of any player that fits that mold though.

    In all seriousness though, Rubio had his standard stat line, but he had a lot of hockey assists with Ingles. Those guys know how to play off each other, it was real fun to watch. At the end of the game Rubio forced to critical turnovers that turned the game around in the 4th. I am excited to watch him all year.

  4. It would be fun to see a line-up of Crawford, Butler, Wiggins, Belly and KAT. Especially if Wiggins is shooting threes like he did last night. I wonder if Thibs really needs three PG that can’t play another position? Basically all three of them have the same game. How about a trade in a couple months of Cole, Tyus and a #2 pick for Avery Bradley? Having a chance to add Bradley’s Defense and toughness to our line-up would be beneficial to us and Detroit is going nowhere this year and would probably like the easy salary dump of Cole, the cheaper Tyus and a pick in exchange for a guard that is a free agent and will probably leave Detroit for nothing. It does blow a hole in Glen’s budget, but at least we get a PG with size, defense and toughness.

    1. The Pistons essentially let Caldwell-Pope leave for nothing to make room for Bradley. They aren’t trading him for cap filler, a league-average PG who doesn’t look like a future starter, and a 2nd round pick. Aldrich and a 2nd could get someone like Jared Dudley, but Bradley is a pending free agent who will want starter money and minutes.

  5. A good indicator of the offensive process as a unit: How many non-dunk shot attempts does Gibson take? Last night, it was 6, plus he got the ball as the roll man on the pick and roll a few times in the first half for some reason that led to missed driving layups. It’s good to see them take and make more 3s, which probably made this a less-decisive Spurs win than usual. Wiggins seemed so relieved to not have Kawhi out there trying to steal his soul like he seems to have done every time they’ve played.

  6. The lead is not that the Spurs are a polished and veteran team: they weren’t that good. The lead is that in a tight game our team made poor choices and their team did not. How many times did I curse in the 4th quarter? One bad decision after another. Gibson’s shots all game were not only bad but stupid. He made great decisions on defense, and I understand that means he needs to be indulged, but what kind of a head does he have that he would keep on shooting the way he did? No shame. Neither Jones nor Teague scare anybody: Jones had space to work and simply stuttered. The subs were better than last year, sure, but Diebg was just as clunky and fumble-fingered as he has always been. Worst of all though, the real indictment of our academic coach, was the body language. Did Butler ever grimace or scream out loud? One time going into the huddle, he was animated. The rest of the time he was as voluble as Wigs. Where is the passion? If Teague rides the bench in the 4th, why doesn’t he coach or shout some support: instead we get apathy and bemusement as he plays with his biceps and watches silently. What kind of a lesson could he possibly learn with that lack of care? If the team is playing with preseason urgency, somebody should be called out for it. Thibs: wake the f— up!

  7. I realize that Avery Bradley is not a probable option, but if Pistons think they can sign him, then Detroit is crazy. And they didn’t sign KCP, because they didn’t want to sign him to a max contract, not to free up space for Avery Bradley and his $9 million salary.

    With the money they have tied up in Drummond and Jackson, I see them shedding salaries or trading for assets and rebuilding. Getting a very young PG, cap relief of almost the same amount as Bradley AND a pick is about all they should expect once everyone knows Bradley wants to move to greener pastures. Probably won’t be the Wolves, but he would be better for us than three PG of the same size and playing style. As for Gibson’s shot selection. We better get used to teams giving him open shots and watching him clanking most of them. Ricky had small guys clogging the lane and letting him shoot. With Taj, we have big men clogging the lane letting him shoot (yikes) or forcing KAT to play away from the basket. If Taj shoots like he did in San Antonio, then Thibs should be relieved of his GM duties, because he could have gotten two or three players for that kind of money.

    1. Eh, not going any further down the line of “hypothetical GM,” though the idea that a team knows less about their ability to re-sign a player than a commenter does is funny. Amin Elhassan and Zach Lowe talk a lot on podcasts about how much teams talk with agents of players not on their teams as a form of legal tampering; it’s just logical that a team trading for a guy with one year left on his deal talked directly to that guy or his agent.

      Not every team will be able to force Taj to shoot. Arguably, many won’t, because many teams aren’t able to force a team to their 5th option consistently during a season, and he’s pretty much always that on the floor considering who’s in the rotation. His shot attempts are simply an indicator of how good/bad the offense was or how good/bad the opposing defense was, based on the process; they might give him a few looks to reward him for defense and rebounding, but that’s maybe 1 non-dunk per quarter.

  8. Great to have you back GJK, even if we see the NBA from totally different lenses. San Antonio left Taj about as wide open for shots as you can and not be called for defensive 3 seconds. Given the scoring ability of the other four wolves starters, my guess is everyone is going to let Taj shoot as many non dunks as he is willing to brick up there and double team the rest.

    Just because an agent sees that his player has no role in his current team (Celtics), doesn’t mean that he is going to sign with the new team(Pistons). They gave up a salary in Morris and refused to pay KCP the max. In exchange, they got Avery Bradley and out of the luxury tax for a team going nowhere. Bradley does want minutes and he wants to play on a winner. Again, not the wolves, but my guess is Avery is playing for someone else next year. My reason for bringing out my Hypothetical GM hat was to point out how similar in size and play our three point guards are and how little flexibility and diversity they give us.

    I would like to see Jimmy and J-Crossover play the guards and Wiggins play the SF. Give Belly a chance to use his passing skills and 3 pt shooting to space the court and let Kat work down low. I’m sure all of this will drive you nuts GJK, but that’s what a wolf among wolves will do.

    Ricky will have a stretch tonight, where the crowd will chant Ole, Ole and Thibs will be apoplectic. Worth the price of admission.

  9. My acknowledged overreactions to the game:
    -Teague looked just a lost defensively as he did when he played for a Hawks team that was desperate to hide him from getting pick n rolled to death.
    -Perhaps more alarmingly, Jones looked more in command of the offense.
    -It’s a new, crazy version of Thibs. Who knew he was capable of playing such unexpected lineup combinations?
    -The Spurs completely controlled the pace, their transition defense prevented the Wolves from effectively running and using their youth to their advantage. Immensely frustrating.
    -I’ve always had a soft spot for Belly and it was great to see him play so aggressive and so efficient. Hope we see much more of this.
    -Speaking of efficient, really liked Wiggins’ efficiency and quiet effectiveness in this game.
    -Why in the hell did Jamal Crawford play 24 minutes? Perhaps Thibs wanted a good, long look at him so he could properly decide whether Craword or Teague is the most atrocious on defense.
    -Oh Baz. I love ya big guy but it’s like your growth as an NBA player suddenly stopped a year ago and you’re no longer capable of adding to your game or fixing your flaws.

    I don’t care that the Wolves lost this game, but I found myself getting irrationally annoyed by this game. This game just scratched a wound that had finally started to heal that was opened up by trading Ricky and acquiring Teague. I don’t care much for how Teague plays the game of basketball and this particular context put into sharp focus all of the reasons that I detested swapping out Rubio for Teague.

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