Spurred by the Bench: Wolves 98, Spurs 86

Bjelica swatting away shots (via nba.com)

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.

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7 thoughts on “Spurred by the Bench: Wolves 98, Spurs 86

  1. This was a really good win for us. It was brought to you by a good defensive effort. Admittedly, the Spurs were a bit off all night, though a tough opponent, and are still without their best player but we still put together one of our better defensive efforts of the season.

    Before I forget, one really bad call during this game got me thinking. Generally, the officiating has been really great this season, and it does seem the last 5 seasons or so there has been notable improvement. It’s now point of education not emphasis, and the other night our announcers were laughing at the non distinction. I guess emphasis somehow implies an arbitrary thing to focus on, while education implies that the rules and emphasis are always the same (in theory) but certain things that aren’t working quite right need to be educated into their rightful place… I don’t know. This year it is traveling. Not just any kind–starting to move just before you start to dribble and moving of pivot foot seem to be what they are looking for. And I like it. I hate traveling and allowing it cuts down on passing and excitement. So I actually don’t mind all the stops in play from these calls. The next frontier is palming. Almost very player in the league does it, and this is rampant and shameless among PGs. They literally carry the ball from the bottom, turn their wrist forcing the ball down and grab it from the bottom again rather than bouncing the ball up and down from the top. Doing this extends the life of a dribble so you can move further in one bounce of the ball (and thus dribble less to get to where you want to go) and also is a cheating way of controlling the handle, as you are making contact with three sides of the ball (including the gravity defying bottom!) using this technique and literally carrying the ball with part of the motion. This allows to manipulate your handle without losing control more easily. These guys are too gifted to need to cheat on the letter of the rules. I wonder if they will every start to ‘educate’ about carries. My main point, though, is that the officiating has been really good and I’m impressed.

    Shabazz actually had a good/willing pass!!! He played well, but whenever he has games like this it seems like he doesn’t play like this for a long time. He’s basically a non evolving player right now unless things change drastically, which isn’t good for us or him. Hope this is the start of learning.

    I get the feeling that Bjelly played so much in this game due to Gorgui being out. But maybe a bit of it has to do with him straight up BALLING. I mean, how long can you give a guy playing all over the court like he is 14 minutes a game? He had 22 mins in this one and that suited him and the team fine. He plays very well with the bench or starters or mixes. Very impressed. I have to admit that few Timberwolves are fun for me to cheer for. My favorite Wolf is probably KAT but he’s annoying at times and hasn’t generally been putting in effort on D. Don’t really like cheering for Teague that much, thought I would like cheering for Bulter, but don’t so far at all. Gibson is kinda fun to cheer for…Wiggins isn’t fun to cheer for at all. Like out of proportion not fun to cheer for in comparison to his impact on the game (which is starting to get locked in as 3-4 most important player in most games, an assessment that doesn’t only factor scoring). Why, I can’t quite say, but Bjelly is fun. He’s so dopy looking, but you can see his joy for the game breaking through his Soviet Bloc exterior. It’s fun. And he’s a fun do sh*t player in the mold of Ricky (rather than the blunt, artless pestering of Butler).

    That the bench looks better without Gorgui isn’t a ringing endorsement. I like Gorgui, and he does useful stuff, yet he never seems to really fit into a role well. It’s weird. He’s not cheap, either.

    I’m not in the Jones as starter camp, but he was impressive in a pretty small sample size. His pass placement is excellent and he has a little flair to his game. If he was more physically gifted he would be a killer player. For instance, he has no freakish natural shooters touch, and though Teague and Tyus are the same height (and Teague is kind of slow and bad at D) Teague still looks notably more physically gifted than Tyus. Jones could be a great bench weapon for us. There is a possibility he could be a starting level player someday because he’s always improving.

    I have to admit, though we are more winning and competitive this year, I still waver in attention and passion for this team as a fan. In this one I found myself appreciating the Spurs’ losing effort and even cheering for them just enough so they might get into the game more and make it closer and more fun. The one time I got really excited was when KAT just took it too them in the paint like he is wont to do. I started flexing and yelling at the screen. Basically saying that he can shove it down the Spurs throat, that he’s our only true go to star on offense. It’s not a contest for me. Towns is our best weapon on offense and how we can beat teams into submission (it’s not gonna happen from our D). Forget Wiggins. This season so far should make his Rudy Gay-esque complimentary role clear. You can’t win with the kind of ugly Bulter has… at least in the west. Butler does all sorts of great things that it is a relief to have on our team, but he’s not our #1. We won’t be bludgeoning talented teams with him alone. KAT is our #1 guy, as clear as day.

  2. It was a nice win, but we have to remember that the Spurs were in Dallas, the night before and needed to play more starter minutes than they probably wanted. They looked a little tired and missing Kawhi and Tony Parker a lot, but it was still a good game to watch and hey we are in third place in the west (home court for the first round).

    Yesterday, I said that Baz was shooting his way to China. Last night, I actually saw him pass the ball instead of forcing up a shot under the basket and that surprised me more than Belly’s block, or his made three pointer. And he looked like he had some understanding of defense and rotations. OK, maybe that is stretching it a bit, but his energy seems to be contagious, so maybe he has a role in this league after all. Keep it up and push Wiggins for minutes, young man.

    I like the combo of Taj and Belly, especially with Crawford. The spacing is so much better, it looks like they widened the court. The ball seems to move more, because these guys don’t hang on to it, if they don’t have something right away. They pass with purpose and the transition game seems to pick up as well. I hope when we play teams like Boston, Houston and Phoenix again, we get some more of these combos.

    I also hope G gets back into the rotation soon. He plays hard every night and I think could be a taller Taj if he was back starting. With Patton out for who knows how long, we are going to need G against teams like the Clippers and Denver. Given his contract, he may be the type of player that you could trade for another shooter, but Thibs will have to make him look interesting to a team that wants to get younger or needs a big.

    Lastly, Jimmy Butler is trying too hard to be the alpha male. In the first few games, he was able to make some of those clutch shots and be the guy that defers to KAT and Wiggins and do the dirty work that needed to be done. Since he proclaimed he was going to shoot more, he has been less effective. He is such a great player, you know he is going to have monster game(s) this year. I just wish he would relax and put a little more arc in his shot. One day soon, the rim is going to look like the ocean and he will score 30+.

  3. Gorgui will probably never be a taller Gibson, as we can see from last year when he was in the starting line up, or this year with his mediocrity playing against second units. Dieng is always a less effective player, in my eyes, than the sum of his skills and size. There is something rehearsed and robotic about his game that just seems to cap it. It shows that simply being big and getting down your moves, sort of like an actor memorizing the lines and following the marks, really isn’t enough to be very good in the NBA. It’s fun to cheer for Gorgui, but I think we overpaid for him and his ceiling is limited. I do think he’ll settle in and play better. But he’s not Gibson. He’s a very different player. For starters a pure C while Gibson is a pure PF who can play some small ball center due to toughness and rebounding. But more to the point, Gibson is a fluid, wily player and Gorgui never will fully be.

    I’m not really that upset by Butler’s lack of scoring, particularly because we are winning. And in a lot of ways he was brought in for everything else he does before scoring. All the same, his clunky offense has come as a shock. It will wear off, but what does it say about his true talent level that he’s adjusting so poorly to this situation? Maybe I’m overreacting. Perhaps the larger issues is what an ugly, artless player he is. Maybe I was not paying enough attention to him as Bull, but I thought of him as a more skilled, talented guy. What I see here is a smart player who is strong and has lots of energy and vet experience, but is not an overly gifted athlete and does not have massively built up skills or any freak talent. He’s lunch pail. And I thought that would be kinda fun. But it’s too lunch pail for me. In a lot of ways, for instance, Ricky was lunch pail with his effort and lack of athletic ability and scoring talent. But he had magic competence with other things. Nothing Butler does is magic or pretty or smooth, not even his leadership style or passing. It’s all hacking away and trying to find that one advantage he can muscle his way into. It’s not fun, but more importantly, so far he’s not the all around all star player I was led to believe he was. This may change as he gets more comfortable here. But I’m not liking what I see in the big picture so far…

  4. Come on Pyrrol. We are third place in the Wild West and on track to win 50 games, so come off the ledge a little, Gorghi obviously isn’t as polished at 27 as Taj is at 35, but like Taj, he has modest shooting touch out to the corner three, which is much better than Taj was at his age. Makes most of his FT, pretty good at taking charges and has some toughness to his game. He and LaVine also had very good chemistry on Pick and Roll two years ago. He is struggling off the bench, but he has several new players to mesh with and none are as polished as KAT, Wiggins and Butler.

    As for Jimmy Butler’s lunch pail, not overly gifted athlete comment watch:

    I know this is his highlight reel, but it compares very favorably with our other two budding superstars for ability and not very lunch pail.

    Ricky certainly was a magician for some pretty crappy teams (and accept for Adelman, average coaches) and I would have loved to see him with this starting five and an offensive minded coach. But I think Teague would be better in a different offense and I think Jimmy would be awesome in more back door cuts and coming off screens instead of having to go iso on people every play. When you watched the Celtics play the Warriors (great game), you saw what a great coach can do with players that are constantly moving away from the ball and know how to guard someone. This is the type of team the Wolves should be. However, even with Cro-Magnon offense, a defense which only has moments, we are in first place in the NorthWest and that doesn’t come from being lucky. I hope the offense evolves this year and the defense shows up for entire games, because then, we will have games and winning streaks like the Celtics too.

    1. This isn’t super complex… Gorgui and Gibson aren’t particularly similar players even though they are both bigs. Gorgui pretty much is what he is at this point. A large percent of bigs now have expanded shooting ranges (this is very recent for Gibson) so that isn’t really an important similarity. The way they play is very different and one is a C and one is a PF. There is a reason Gibson starts and Gorgui doesn’t. Actually two–Gibson is an actual PF and he is an all around better player than Dieng, given his defense. Gorgui’s a good bench piece but I don’t think he’s going to start to look more like Gibson, as they are just fundamentally dissimilar bigs in a lot of ways. That’s OK. Gorgui is a good bench piece, a fun guy to cheer for and generally very durable (despite just missing a few games). If having Gibson on the team didn’t make us better we wouldn’t have him, and certainly not starting over Dieng. It is a luxury to have a player of Gorgui’s talent and size on the bench, so none of this is meant as a cut against him, but rather as realism.

      As for Butler, has he looked spectacular in any way as a Wolf so far? That’s my main point. He’s just kind of a drag to watch so far in our uniform and not playing up to the standard he set for himself recently. He’s been pretty bad, actually. But it’s a testament to his ability that he still has so many ways to help his team out even when struggling. I also find myself wondering how much less ugly his game will be when he gets back on track. I think he’s to some degree not an aesthetic player, but that’s not really important in terms of winning. This team will be much scarier when he gets more on track. I do think it is interesting to ponder how much on track we can expect… Obviously his numbers won’t be the same in this situation as they were in his recent past. He might get a few more assists, a few less points etc. But will he ever get fully comfortable here? More specifically, he’s in the West now, and it’s the tougher conference and tends to have more size and difficult matchups, so that might take a slight toll, too. Either way, we should still be good due to our wide array of talent. We don’t need him to be a revelation.

      Speaking of that, I like your last point a lot. It might be unpopular to say because we are winning and offense isn’t our problem, defense is–this year and last we’ve usually been able to score enough points in games. But it is worth noting what a… not good offensive coach Thibs is, and it speaks highly of our talent that it is still fairly easy for us to score. It would be great to have a more Popovich, Stevens, or Kerr type offense going (even if we don’t have the right personnel to imitate it too closely). But we can be very good without that if our D improves. But I guess that’s talking purely in terms of wins. As for keeping me awake during games… There’s a little more work to do in that department.

  5. It is no longer a question of the “best” players – or the most developed players. Thibs will have to continue to develop rotations – where these players bring out the best in each other. Even the points per 48, or the over/under stats may not determine who gets floor time. For KAT/Wiggins/Butler/Teague – their backup is a clearly defined role. The playing minutes expanded mostly by protecting the energy of the starters or injury should one go down. Dieng/Gibson/Bjelica – is really the only place we have 3 players with experienced and quality game. Not actually a huge drop off from KAT (physically and potentially yes – but the experience and mistakes as a 22 year old balance some of that difference). Gibson – experience/Defensive mindset/toughness. Dieng – Size/experience/flexibility C/PF/plays strong both sides of the ball. Bjelica – the most natural PF/spreads the floor/pure shooter/defends well/good size. Hope that Dieng’s injury is the last – would like to see Thibs have to experiment with rotations when all are healthy. It’s a good problem. Also hope Patton gets healthy – would like to see him on the court, then follow his progress in Iowa. Who knows how good he could be/become, and which position he could challenge for playing time.

  6. The staggering of starter/bench minutes seemed to go better. As for Bjelly, the most likely strategy once Dieng comes back is to just ease up on Gibson’s minutes and play Bjelly more down the stretch. They don’t always have to have Gibson out there, though he has been good at getting offensive rebounds.

    It seems like they’ve done more 4-out offense in the last few games to provide better spacing. They’re still not passing/cutting that well, but at least they’ve reduced the number of highly contested shots they’d been taking.

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