It doesn’t get much worse than that. The Spurs not only got walloped by the Timberwolves in what turned out to be one of the worst losses of the Gregg Popovich era, but also had some of their biggest weaknesses exposed in the process. The 128-89 final score fails to reflect just how embarrassingly bad they were in every aspect.
Let’s start with the game plan. Pop decided to change his starting lineup, sending Dante Cunningham to the bench. The move made sense, but the timing and the execution were questionable at best. Instead of inserting a shooter into a unit that already has three players who need the ball, Pop went with Derrick White. He also made the decision to go small against a team that is huge, featuring two big men and two big wings in the perimeter. Unsurprisingly, the Wolves left White or DeMar DeRozan open to help inside and hunted matchups on the other end, with Andrew Wiggins posting up White and Taj Gibson going at Rudy Gay.
While Pop deserves plenty of blame for not foreseeing the issues his new starting unit would have matching up with Minnesota's, the players shouldn’t be excused for putting on a pitiful performance. For the third straight game the starters played with zero urgency to start the game. Facing a bigger opponent, they didn’t up their physicality to make up for it. The bench once again did enough to keep the team in it in the first quarter but completely fell apart facing a Wolves second unit that was not only more talented but also more aggressive. They looked startled facing pressure from the defense, coughing up the ball like crazy.
The issues go beyond attitude, unfortunately. The execution on both ends was disastrous, like it has been on many nights. The offense continues to be baffled by the most predictable double teams, as if both the players and Pop were actually surprised that opponents are leaving non-shooters open to guard post ups that take forever to set up. The transition defense is still a disaster and the half court defense is not much better. Pop at one point went with a zone, which is essentially an admission that he does not trust his players to execute the defensive system. Sometimes individual performances make up for poor team play. Not on Wednesday.
It truly was one of the worst Spurs games in a long time. The watching experience was almost nightmarish at times. The juxtaposition of Sean Elliott endlessly complaining about how the league has changed and praising players for passing up three-pointers while the Spurs were playing a throwback style and getting destroyed felt almost purposefully dissonant, like when movies play peaceful music over violent scenes. Tom Thibodeau’s guttural grunting on the sidelines gave the proceedings the feeling of a nature documentary in which the Spurs were the helpless gazelles. Certified bad person Derrick Rose got a standing ovation. It was surreal.
It’s mercifully over now, and the Spurs need to move on. They know and we know that they are not this bad. This will likely be the worst loss of the season. The playoffs are still a realistic goal, for now. They will eventually have to figure out at least some of the underlying problems that have been plaguing them all season and made this loss possible, but there’s time.
Fortunately, this road trip is finally over and eight of the next 10 games will be at home, where they have been significantly better. There’s still a chance that when 2019 rolls around the Spurs will still be in the playoff hunt and this loss will be a fading memory.
- It was DeMar DeRozan’s worst game as a Spur. He had four turnovers in the first quarter and had two points on three shots in the second quarter, which San Antonio lost 25 to nine.
- LaMarcus Aldridge started strong but fizzled, just like the rest of the team. Double teams continue to neutralize him too easily.
- The new starting lineup should work better against the Rockets, which play small. I still don’t love it. I’d rather have an extra shooter in there. The obvious option would be Davis Bertans, but Pop doesn’t trust him. Maybe Marco Belinelli should get a chance. He’s certainly been struggling off the bench, posting some of his worse shooting numbers in years. A role change could benefit him.
- Sending White back to the bench could help solve another issue: the lack of a playmaker in the second unit. I’d love to see Pop give White the ball and have him work on high screens, just to start possessions and see what develops from there. It would also provide Jakob Poeltl with a role. Right now he just stands near the paint, clogging it.
- Quincy Pondexter had two thunderous dunk attempts, showing off more bounce than I thought he had left. Notice I said dunk attempts and not dunks. He missed both, though he did get fouled on the second one. We didn’t even get fun garbage time plays in this one.
- The Wolves are finding an identity as a tough defensive team, mostly thanks to Robert Covington, and have a deep bench that features a rejuvenated Rose and Dario Saric. There was some skepticism as to whether they were going to stay on the playoff hunt after the Jimmy Butler trade. They have played well enough lately to quench those doubts. The West is just ridiculously deep.
Up next: Vs. Rockets on Friday
The Rockets, currently the second worst team in the conference, will visit San Antonio for the second time this season. The first one was a Spurs win. Both teams need to bounce back after tough losses, so it should be a battle.