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Spurs miss DeRozan late in close loss to the Timberwolves

Despite a stellar performance by Lonnie Walker IV, the Spurs couldn’t pull away early and struggled to get buckets in the clutch without their closer.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Minnesota Timberwolves David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs’ win streak ended at three in Minnesota, as the Timberwolves closed the game better to escape with a much-needed 96-88 victory after seven consecutive losses. Lonnie Walker IV led San Antonio with 25 points while D’Angelo Russell had 27 in the winning effort.

What do you get when you put two teams on the second game of a back-to-back against each other, while neither has their best offensive weapon available? A chaotic, ugly but at times surprisingly fun game. No DeMar DeRozan (out for personal reasons) or Karl-Anthony Towns (still nursing a wrist injury) meant both the Spurs and Timberwolves were going to be forced to find scoring elsewhere. Lonnie Walker IV answered the call for San Antonio in the first half, playing as aggressively as he ever has to carry the offense. Minnesota’s scoring was only a little more diversified, as Malik Beasley and D’Angelo Russell matched Walker IV’s 22 first half points between the two.

The individual exploits were entertaining enough to distract from the rest of the game, which was predictably sloppy early and saw both teams get into mini droughts. It was a low scoring affair despite some offensive explosions because neither offense could execute consistently and without stars to bail them out, both the Timberwolves and the Spurs simply lacked the weapons to put points on the board despite bad defensive efforts from both sides.

The small lead San Antonio carried into the break immediately disappeared in the third quarter. Turnovers and a more normal performance from Walker IV, combined with some continued scoring from Russell and Beasley, allowed the Wolves to get back in it. Likely knowing that Lonnie was not going to continue to score like a superstar, Gregg Popovich decided instead to run the offense through LaMarcus Aldridge, with some success. Unfortunately Aldridge punishing Naz Reid inside for a while wasn’t enough to truly create separation, as essentially both teams mostly traded buckets and defensive mistakes the rest of the way. Still, the Spurs were ahead going into the final frame.

A beautifully executed set play to start the fourth quarter that resulted in a Patty Mills three-pointer put San Antonio up by six and seemed to foreshadow a stretch in which the better coached team would pull away. Alas, after the the first couple of minutes, the Wolves started to chip away at a deficit that reached nine at its apex, forcing a close ending. The absence of DeMar DeRozan became imposible to hide in those last few minutes for the Spurs, as Lonnie Walker IV never heated up again before leaving the court with a cramp and both Aldridge and Mills failed to get enough important buckets when needed most. Minnesota played just a little but better in those final moments and that was enough to secure the win.

Game notes

  • What a first half for Lonnie Walker IV. He scored 22 of his total 25 points in the first two quarters, relentlessly attacking the Wolves’ interior defenders on drives. For two quarters, Walker IV did a fantastic job or replacing DeMar DeRozan’s production not only in the scoring department but also by going to the line and moving the ball after making the defense collapse. He largely disappeared in the second half, but he did enough early to be one of the best performers of the night.
  • With DeRozan out and Lonnie not channeling Clyde Drexler after the half, LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills had to shoulder more of the burden on offense, to mix results. They combined for 38 points but it took them 40 shots to get there, as Mills was cold from beyond the arc and Aldridge couldn’t get to the line. They tried to carry the team to a win in the fourth, but simply couldn’t get clutch buckets. Not a great performance but not a terrible one either.
  • The other available veteran won’t escape criticism so easily. In this type of game Rudy Gay is supposed to show leadership by taking on more responsibility, especially on offense. Instead he scored four points on six shots. Trey Lyles logged 35 minutes, which should never, ever happen, but it’s hard for me to blame Pop for going with the guy that was playing harder. Hopefully Rudy will bounce back soon, because he’s still needed.
  • Jakob Poeltl also played much less than he’s used to, but since Aldridge was needed for offense and the Wolves play small, it’s not really surprising. It’s been a slow start of the season for Jak, but it feels too early to worry about him.
  • Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson were not great in this one. Murray was solid as a distributor but struggled to score efficiently from everywhere while Johnson was a complete non-factor on offense in general. Both had their moments on defense, but at this point the Spurs expect more production from them on the other end.
  • Similarly, Devin Vassell had some good plays as a help defender in his almost 10 minutes of action, but didn’t do much more.
  • Speaking of rookies, the first overall pick of the 2020 draft, Anthony Edwards, completed a nightmare back-to-back against the Spurs. After making a critical mistake in the end of overtime on Saturday, he went 0-for-8 on Sunday with more turnovers than assists. Edwards will clearly be good, but it will take him a while to reach his potential, it seems.

Next game: @ Thunder on Tuesday

The Spurs will end a five-game road trip with a visit to Oklahoma City. The Thunder are young, but they have nice pieces and beat the Nets on Sunday. If DeRozan is out, which seems likely, it could be a tough out.