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Spurs defense offers T-Pups another harsh lesson

Kawhi Leonard scores 31 to keep San Antonio undefeated on the road

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Game 22, @Minnesota: Spurs 105, Timberwolves 91

Rec: 18-4, 1st in Southwest Division, 2nd in West Streak: W-4

I admit that I’m not always pumped up for every game on the schedule, but truly I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. Wednesday offered an interesting match-up, a contrast in styles and developmental bell-curves. The Timberwolves are supposed to be the next big thing in the league, the successors to the Warriors’ throne in, oh, 2020 or so. They’ve got successive number one overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, another freakish wing in Zach LaVine, and more talent in the pipeline. They’re the envy of downtrodden teams – and fan-bases – around the league and League Pass darlings for Warriors off-nights.

They don’t have a Kawhi Leonard on their squad though, which means they’ve still got a ways to go.

To be clear, as amazing an athlete as Leonard is, Wiggins, Towns and LaVine are in a different phylum than even him. They can do freakish things that Leonard couldn’t dream of. Wiggins has a season-high of 47 points and has also had games of 36 and 35. Towns scored 47 and pulled down 18 rebounds at New York last week, but, tellingly, it came in a loss. Even LaVine has had games with 37, 31 and 31 points as a third-banana.

It seems unfathomable for the T-Pups to be 6-15 with all that talent, with a credible, respected tactician in Tom Thibodeau leading them, yet here they are. And it’s the latest example of why even today, with all our metrics, we don’t pay enough respect to defense when evaluating players. Sean Elliott gets a lot of flak – some deserved, some not – for his homerism from national writers, but I thought he raised an excellent point a couple weeks back when he observed that it’s rather silly to designate players like Leonard or Chicago’s Jimmy Butler as “two-way” stars, as if what they’re doing is going above and beyond the responsibilities and expectations we should have for players. No, you’re supposed to play as hard and well as possible at both ends. That’s the job. And those demands are even more implicit for elite high-lottery athletic specimens of which the T-Wolves have in spades. When Gregg Popovich was asked earlier in the season if he was worried about putting too much on Leonard’s plate these days, he blanched.

"He’s done it for us the entire time he’s been there," Popovich said. "At the offensive end, I think our players get less minutes than other players at those positions if I’m not mistaken. I don’t think he’s ever going to be worn out. I’m not going to play him like Latrell Sprewell. The bottom line is that he’s getting paid to do both. So get your ass out there and do both, if you want to know the truth. If you don’t want to do both then we’ll pay you $4 million."

Towns and Wiggins are already making well north of $4 million and LaVine will too, in short order. So far none of them have shown the willingness to affect games positively on the defensive end, the will to keep their team in games even when the offense isn’t flowing or to stretch leads when it is. Their highlights almost all come with the ball in their hands and as long as this is so, the Wolves will be a fun diversion but no serious threat to anyone.

The Spurs were fortunate Wednesday night, let’s be clear. They caught Towns and Wiggins on an off night. They did some smart things, like shading Towns to his left and encouraging him to shoot from outside. Having Leonard naturally gave them an edge in defending Wiggins. They had but 11 turnovers, and few of the “live ball” variety, limiting Minnesota’s fast break opportunities. But things certainly didn’t start out in their favor. They were without the services of the injured Tony Parker and a resting Manu Ginobili and on a SEGABABA after a physically demanding game at Milwaukee the night before while their youthful, energetic opponents had two days of rest. The Spurs had disastrous start in the opening 4:36, in which they made one of their first 10 shots and found themselves trailing 12-3. A dismayed Popovich opted for a full line change, with Kyle Anderson in Ginobili’s usual spot. All five reserves scored in the opening quarter, with Patty Mills, coming off a 0-of-8 outing at Milwaukee, leading the way with eight, and the Spurs found themselves trailing only 22-19 after one despite their starters combining for all of three points in the opening period.

The starters checked back in to start the second and again the T-Pups were off to the races, back to a 10-point lead before the Spurs started clawing back. While Towns and Wiggins struggled to a combined 4-of-17 shooting line in the first half, the Spurs had no such issues with two of their stars, Leonard and Pau Gasol, who shook off their first quarter doldrums, scoring 22 of San Antonio’s 24 points in the second period, accounting for 10 of the team’s 11 field goals and 13 of their 16 attempts in a rather undemocratic stretch of offensive basketball. Basically Leonard canned a bunch of pull-up jumpers and Gasol threw in a couple of half-hooks and open threes. Minnesota offered their best Spurs impression in turn, cobbling together 24 points with eight players contributing between two and five points for the cause, and they still led by three at half.

You may have heard during the broadcast that the third quarter has been Minnesota’s undoing so far this season, which ranked 29th in the league with a -26.6 net rating (somehow Brooklyn’s is even worse) and indeed that average sunk even lower after the Spurs outscored them 29-18 in the period to take control of the game. At long last LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green and Nicolas Laprovittola all showed up to the party and Leonard was well into Teen Wolf mode by now, a perfect 3-of-3 from the field and 4-of-4 from the charity stripe. Wiggins was lost against him on both ends and oddly both he and Towns were in a fog the whole period, combining to take just three shots. The Spurs’ marksmanship from outside progressed toward the mean and they took care of the boards, not allowing any second-chance points in the quarter, and it provided them the gap they’d need.

Leonard outscored Minnesota’s dynamic duo 9-8 in the fourth quarter, too, though that number is misleading. Neither Towns nor Wiggins really sprung to life until the score was well out of hand, with the former launching a pair of half-hearted three-point attempts while being defended by Gasol and the latter content to let Leonard do as he pleased. Surprisingly, it was Anderson who had the hammer to nail in the opponent’s coffin on this night, as he scored nine of his season-high 11 points in the period and had a fine overall showing with six rebounds and four assists.

Things will likely get better for the T-Pups. For whatever reason Towns wasn’t inspired tonight but that’s not the norm for him. I trust Thibodeau’s track record to get him to buy in defensively at least, though I don’t know if Wiggins or LaVine can be salvaged in that regard. The guy who really impressed me was rookie point guard Kris Dunn. He’s just a terrifying athlete on a squad full of them, and I can’t imagine Ricky Rubio will be here much longer. But he and his teammates suffered an out-and-out punking at home to a tired Spurs club that had no business dictating terms of pace and physicality to them. It was an unacceptable performance that I don’t know can be described fairly without questioning the team’s focus, resolve and determination.

With the Spurs, Pop would call it “soft” and question the team’s “competitive fiber,” and I’m guessing Thibs will have similar assessments. I’ll be interested to see how Minnesota comes out for their next game. The Spurs perspective meanwhile, is nothing but pride and admiration. The team was shorthanded and tired but put together one of their better defensive performances on the season beginning to end, protecting the rim well, not giving up anything easy and paying attention to the game plan, with Dewayne Dedmon a godsend in the paint again and Jonathon Simmons making a couple hustle plays. The offense wasn’t always pretty – it rarely is – but eventually a number of guys contributed, including Mills with 15 and Laprovittola with 10. Their 13-0 road start is second-best in NBA history only to last year’s Warriors, who started 14-0 and they’re only a half-game behind the current Warriors for best record in the league at the quarter pole despite a 6.0 net rating and a 5.0 scoring differential.

That’s crazy, man.

Up Next: @Chicago Bulls (11-10)

The new-look Bulls started like a house on fire, but now they’ve imploded, losing three straight and six of their past 10. While the Spurs were taking care of business in Minny, the Pistons were dusting Chicago in the fourth quarter. As expected, a perimeter trio of Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo is having trouble hurting teams from outside. The Bulls are dead last in three pointers made – averaging almost a full make less than the next-closest team – and dead last in percentage too. It will be a homecoming of sorts for Gasol, who spent the past couple of seasons for the Bulls, and for Parker, whose father hails from Chicago. The Wee Frenchman is 50/50 to play on Thursday, but either way the Spurs are a pretty solid bet to return home having tied the Warriors’ road mark.