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.
- 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.