For the second meeting in a row, the Minnesota Timberwolves took it to the San Antonio Spurs for most of the game and nearly pulled the upset. But in similar fashion to their first encounter, the Spurs once again were able to dig deep into their talent pool and veteran know-how -- led by emerging 6th Man of the Year candidate George Hill and gutsy free-throw shooting by Manu Ginobili -- to eke out a thrilling comeback and leave the young Wolves in disappointment, despite drawing impressive performances from young studs Kevin Love and Michael Beasley.
Let's recap another heart attack game, after the jump.
Just to set things straight, I'm not happy at all whenever the Spurs get into trouble late against below-.500 teams. These games are supposed to give our aging core extra rest, provide more court time for the bench and give them confidence, and practice whatever new wrinkles that the coaching staff wants to incorporate. Instead, the act of having to come back from significant deficits make the players expend A TON of energy, which lead to tired legs and more missed shots, and other things such as slower reactions and all that.
First, Some Props to the T-Cubs
Before I get to The Comeback, a little Love for the T-Wolves, who've been giving our dear silver and black the hardest of times in this young regular season. I think someone from the comments during the first game mentioned that with some teams in the West weakening, this rag tag group can sneak in and nab a playoff spot. Since the NBA marketing heads and KG continuously brainwash us that anything is possible, I'll give 'em that.
While I love me some Blair, Kevin Love is the real heir to Moses Malone's rebound hound throne. Watching this guy, he's just so crafty around the glass. He's one of those players who you love to hate if he's not on your team but still find it easy to appreciate his gift of grab. There were several possessions when he neither outjumped nor outhustled opponents, and still ended up with the ball. Late in the game, the Spurs had to send two, three guys to box out K-Love and help in the loose ball rebounds. He was that crazy good on the boards.
If ever a team's going to make noise in the playoffs, they need a superstar, and Michael Beasley is probably their closest guy to that status. Sadly, he still needs to get his head on straighter than Rambis' hair (seriously Beas, LOSE the dreadlocks!) and play consistently for the full 48 minutes. And even sadder is that I don't think he'll ever live up to the superstar standard.
The rest of the Wolves cast, though, remains lacking. Corey Brewer's BBIQ seems low, to think that he was part of that back-to-back National Champion Florida Gators squad. Luke Ridnour isn't someone you'd want playing a lot of minutes. Wes Johnson, while talented and athletic and long (draft scout's dream!), plays like a career role player, and Darko Milicic just doesn't quite cut it as a consistent big man night-in and night-out.
Hanging Around On a Friday Night
The signs of another rough game for our Spurs kept on popping during the first half, particularly the piss-poor rebounding start, with the Pups racing out to an 11-0 rebounding edge in the game's first few minutes. That was a glaring stat, although you could temper that by saying Duncan was blocking everything in sight (do you count a recovery after a block a rebound?), along with the Wolves turning the ball over in some situations. The free throw disparity ended up at a huge -22 for the Spurs, and a whopping -16 on the offensive glass. That was a good glass-kicking, to say the least.
Three-point shooting remained awful as well, continuing a trend from the Clippers game. Manu, Bonner and RJ missed a ton of open shots, both from three-point distance and mid range. Seeing all those misses, I had playoff flashbacks when nothing seemed to fall for the team, including those in-and-out shots that make heartbeats sink to lower than normal levels.
Thankfully, Tim and Tony kept us close during that stretch. Give it to the old man for wanting to get back at Darko for embarrassing the GPFOAT during that initial encounter. Timmeh was incredibly rock solid in protecting the paint, and completely took Milicic out of his rhythm by getting him into foul trouble. Too bad though that Duncan's supporting bigs couldn't keep the enemies away from piling on the offensive rebounds.
Eject Me Because I Want To Mess With My Staff... Or I'm Just Bored With This Game
With Manu playing uncharacteristically lethargic for much of the game and Tim and Tony slowing down from trying to keep the team in the game, the inevitable Wolves salvo began. In the midst of that blistering run was Brewer, Beasley and Love, and if Beas didn't hurt himself towards the end of that spurt, it would've been big for the upset dreamers. It didn't help that the Spurs kept on shooting long twos with the shot clock winding down, either.
And then the thinkable happened. Pop got himself ejected after finally having enough of all the missed over-the-back calls and three-second violations, sloppy shooting and defense, and seeing Joey C.'s smug mug through it all. This left a confused and tired team on the hands of some regular chap named Mike Budenholzer, Pop's top assistant for quite some time now.
Not to be outdone by the surprising depth that the Spurs roster has this season, the coaching staff showed that they are also crazy awesome outside of Popovich. Down 15 to start the fourth and given the Spurs' past propensity to call it a day when faced with leads this big, one may be forgiven to think that it's a lost cause. But the eager Budenholzer realized that if he's to trim such a big deficit in a short period of time, he needed his energy guys out there. He came up with the lineup of Hill, Neal, Blair, Manu, and Bonner/Dice, a group that we've seen before during preseason games to be capable of making comebacks.
While Blair's numbers don't necessarily jump out of the boxscore, his impact in jumpstarting the comeback train with offensive boards, drawing loose ball fouls and using his long reach to initiate steals couldn't be discounted. Neal and Bonner also finally started to get breaks with their threes, while Georgie's smart swipes at driving Wolves players generated breakaways. As the psychological barrier of a double-digit deficit was broken, so was the young T-Pups team's resolve.
Sensing this, Coach Bud slowly brought in the big guns, with the catch of putting in a small ball lineup after Darko fouled out. Once Tim, RJ and Tony subbed in, it was only a matter of time when the lead would be regained. The ballhawking defense returned and created a lot of open court opportunities for our top athletes Albatross and Rage. Love wasn't feeling his name on the free throw line, and Beasley returned to his turnover prone, unclutch self. Even with his shot not falling and his legs seemingly tied to a ball chain, Manu knew the opponent was wobbly and did what he does best - dialing up the URA, going for broke with maniacal Argentine attacking to draw fouls, and using up every inch of ice in his veins to coolly sink the clutch free throws. Add to that the epic play off a timeout by Coach Bud that ended up with a Rage dunk, and another comeback victory and heartbreak for the Wolves were sealed.
Another game, another gutsy performance, albeit against another mediocre squad. A second straight loss would've been devastating. Are we regressing back to the Spurs mean? Are tired legs already taking over this early into the season? Are there hidden injuries that, in typical Spurs fashion, are kept from the public eye until after some time? Are teams finally figuring out how to stop the Spursffensive juggernaut? When is Tiago Splitter going to get significant minutes? Is Manu Ginobili gassed out? Is Pop drinking too much wine?
I think more than the answers that we've already seen during the earlier games, this one produced some really intriguing questions. I say continue to enjoy each and every win, no matter what shape or form, but let the discovery continue.
Your Three Stars
3 -- Coach Pop and Bud - These two share honors, the former for the typical eject-me-ref motivational ploy, and the latter for holding the ship together and pulling the strings on a great comeback.
2 -- Manu Ginobili - Much as what I liked what Tim, Tony and Rage did, most people remember what happens in the end. Despite an overall bad night, Gino still makes us remember him in a special way with a solid closing performance. 16 points, 13-13 from the line.
1 -- George Hill - He's no PG for sure, but he's been instant offense AND defense off the bench who's showing he's very capable of stepping in the shoes of our backcourt stars when they're having a bad night. 20 points, 2 rebounds, 1 steal, and a big hustle play to a loose ball and call timeout during the waning moments of the game. Keep it up, please, Georgeous.
Up Next: Game 2 of the 6-game homestand against the Hornets... again! For the third time now, I'm getting kinda sick seeing these guys' faces. They inflicted our first home loss this season, let's try to make amends, shall we?