The mark of a good team is…
Well, it could be a lot of things and that’s a cliché of a sentence starter. One possible finish to it would be “that it can win games even when the best players have off nights.”
The Wolves beat the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night at Target Center despite the fact that Jimmy Butler shot 2 for 13 from the field and Andrew Wiggins shot 4 for 11, after burying a meaningless three-pointer with seconds left in the game. Butler finished with 6 points, Wiggins with 11.
But no matter. They received plenty of production from birthday-boy Karl-Anthony Towns and all of the bench players to beat the Spurs by double digits. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Kawhi Leonard remains out with a leg injury and San Antonio played in Dallas on Tuesday night. But those qualifiers matter a lot less than the fact that the Timberwolves beat the Spurs — finally (they had lost 12 in a row to Popovich & Co.) — on a night when they hardly played their best basketball.
The game started exactly how the presumably-tired Spurs would’ve hoped: slow, physical, and ugly. With the Wolves first-string offense resorting to too much iso ball and not enough movement, they managed just 18 points to SAS’s 24. Before the huge-by-weeknight-games-at-Target-Center-standards crowd could get too worried, however, the bench came in and blew the Spurs off the floor in the second quarter.
Credit could go all around to each reserve that played in this game, which constituted the normal five-man bench minus Gorgui Dieng, who remains sidelined with a finger injury.
Shabazz Muhammad, off to a miserable start to his “contract year” season, finally saw the ball go in the hoop. He started with a rebound dunk, and took off from there, eventually ending the game with 9 points on 4-5 shooting in 12 minutes of +7 action. Bazz was vital to the initial push at the beginning of the second quarter, scoring all 9 of his points in the first 4:40 of the period.
Jamal Crawford’s scoring line was modest: 5 points on 2-5 shooting. But he played a nice floor game, dropping 3 nice assists and properly deferring to his younger, better-at-initiating teammates, Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica, each of whom played extremely well in this game.
Jones had a great mini stretch of two-man basketball with KAT in the second quarter, sliding pocket passes to Towns for easy scores, and then sticking a jumper of his own. In 14 minutes of +5 action, he had 4 assists to just 1 turnover.
The bench deserves a lot of the credit for the 39 to 19 second quarter that effectively decided the ultimate outcome. The second half involved the Wolves playing with a lead that grew and then shrunk, but never felt too much in doubt.
Bjelica was the key guy in this game, doing a little bit of everything to help the Wolves on both ends of the floor. He had 11 points on 9 shots, scoring on jumpers, driving bank shots, and dunks. On defense, he stayed in his lane and did his job. He even had one huge block; something we aren’t accustomed to seeing from Belly. In the end, Bjelica was a game-best +15 in his 22 minutes of action.
Here is something to chew on from this game: due to Dieng’s absence, we had a chance to see Bjelica play next to Taj Gibson for some stretches. (For 8 minutes, per nba.com/stats.) These two have somehow individually each led the team in “net rating” in the early part of this season, despite the fact that they usually swap out for each other. In this modern NBA of versatile big men who can switch and defend the post, many Wolves viewers have wondered what they might look like next to each other as a front line pairing. Heading into Wednesday’s game, they had played next to each other for a grand total of 16 minutes in 2 games. In those limited minutes, their lineups were a whopping +27.
On Wednesday against the Spurs? When both Bjelica and Gibson were on the floor, the Wolves were +12. They are now +39 in 24 minutes of action, forming an outrageous net rating of +83.5. Their lineups have averaged 141.0 points scored per 100 possessions (!!!) and they have allowed just 57.5 points per 100 possessions. (!!!) (!!!) (!!!)
Twenty four minutes is hardly a sample size, but the individual play of both Bjelica and Gibson calls for more usage of the combination. In the Spurs game, Gibson showed off his elite defensive skills, bothering big-man scorer LaMarcus Aldridge every time he posted him up, and playing rock-solid defense whenever a pick-and-roll came his way. Gibson has been an incredibly helpful player for the Wolves this season and is one of the key reasons for their impressive 9-5 start.
Of course, any contemplating of Taj & Belly lineups likewise contemplates Towns sitting on the bench. This is a dubious proposition, regardless of what the on/off or other advanced stats have to say. KAT is the team’s best offensive player and they need him. Against the Spurs on his 22nd birthday, Towns went off. In particular in the 2nd Quarter but throughout the entire game, he rolled hard to the rim and battled the bigger, older Spurs defenders. He posted a KAT-like line of 26 points, 16 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 2 blocks. If he wasn’t game MVP it was only because of his net-zero plus/minus, partially reflective of his interior defense, which just isn’t as good as Gibson’s. Not by a long shot. But all of that production clearly matters, and Towns was an offensive machine in this game.
So, if Thibs needs to find more minutes for Bjelica — in particular, further experimenting with Taj & Belly — but cannot afford to cut KAT minutes, then what is left?
The only realistic answer is to carve out some of Gorgui’s 15.8 minutes per game. Last year, Thibs would often play Cole Aldrich for a single stint in the first half, and not again in the second. Don’t be shocked if — when he returns from the finger issue — Gorgui receives the Aldrich Treatment. At a certain point, if Bjelica keeps this up, he will have simply earned a bigger job and Thibs is never one to look the other way when somebody does his job.