It appears that not even being severely shorthanded can stop the young Spurs early in the season. Despite missing Devin Vassell, Jeremy Sochan, and Josh Richardson to start the game and losing Blake Wesley midway, San Antonio managed to beat the Timberwolves 107 - 98 to climb to a shocking 5-2 record.
With some key absences bringing uncertainty, it was important for the Spurs to come out strong from the tip-off, and they did. Keita Bates-Diop and Romeo Langford looked at home with the rest of the starters, as the unit played with the same pace and selflessness that has characterized the team this year. There were some struggles containing Karl-Anthony Towns at times, but the rest of the Timberwolves couldn’t step up. The contrast between the two teams’ depth and reliance on one or two players was stark, as even a second unit that featured two rookies managed to play through some mistakes and find ways to score and get stops while Minnesota’s crumbled. Veterans Doug McDermott and Zach Collins deserve props for leading the young bench, but it was a group effort that led the Silver and Black to finish the first 12 minutes up three despite being shorthanded.
As it’s been the case with the Timberwolves for most of the season, they struggled with a lack of urgency and paid for it. The Spurs took advantage of an opponent that seemed frustrated with the officials and themselves as the second period started to create some separation by getting to the line and hitting outside shots, which allowed them to survive a drought that came about when Minnesota upped the intensity on defense. The improved play of the Wolves and an injury that sidelined Blake Wesley, hurting San Antonio’s depth even further, could have turned the tide, but these Spurs don’t fold easily. Everyone remained confident on offense while trying to push the pace and they rebounded and defended as a group despite often being at a size disadvantage. The Wolves did enough to remain the game, but still faced a double-digit deficit at the half.
After facing Minnesota twice already this season, it was not surprising to see the visitors start off the second half slow. A 9-0 run almost allowed the Spurs to double their lead before the Wolves strung together a few good possessions that forced Gregg Popovich to tweak his lineups and go big with Zach Collins and Jakob Poeltl sharing the floor. The Spurs withstood the charge and got back on the offensive by continuing to outwork their opponent and punish a lax perimeter defense by Minnesota with made threes. There was a scary moment when Keldon Johnson seemed to hyperextend his knee, but despite grimacing with pain a few times, he managed to play the rest of the quarter and hold off the second push by the Wolves, which found success with a zone defense and a stretch big man creating space for some Anthony Edwards drives.
The Naz Reid - Edwards pairing continued to give the Spurs fits to start the fourth and allowed the visitors to cut the deficit to just three early in the period. At that point it was understandable to wonder if the young Spurs were going to be able to close the game out, but their resolve never waivered, as they kept trying to attack the rim and contain Edwards. Weirdly enough, it was the return of the Wolves’ two star big men that made things easier for San Antonio. Pop went big once again with two centers, and the room Edwards have to drive disappeared. Both teams struggled to score in the final minutes, which benefitted the Silver and Black, as they simply managed their lead into a hard-fought and impressive win while missing key players and adjusting to new lineups.
- The Spurs won’t face the Timberwolves again until the second to last game of the season, which is a blessing. Not because they are a particularly bad matchup for San Antonio but because they are just a boring team with bad vibes. It’s clearly too early to call the Gobert trade a mistake — they have a winning record, after all — but there’s a lot to figure out in Minnesota if contending is the goal.
- Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl were both great and helped make up for the absences the team was suffering. Johnson dropped an efficient 25 points while dishing out a career-high eight assists while Poeltl was a monster on the boards and patrolling the paint. It seems that if those two are around, the Spurs are going to at least be competitive in most games.
- The two bench guys that were thrust into the starting lineup were fantastic as well. Keita Bates-Diop finished with 18 points and six rebounds while being aggressive on both ends. Romeo Langford was arguably even more impressive, even if the box score doesn’t show it. He played very good defense on Edwards and helped tremendously on the offensive boards, keeping some possessions alive at important moments. Collins and McDermott also played well. This team has almost too much depth, which is a good problem.
- The young guards were a mixed bag. Tre Jones didn’t have it as a scorer but did his thing as a floor general. Malaki Branham, making his regular season debut, missed six of his seven shots but kept the ball moving. Blake Wesley seemed on his way to another good game but had to leave the floor with a hopefully not serious knee injury. Some expected ups and downs for that group, but nothing too worrying.
Play of the game
Keldon Johnson fell to the bottom of the first round in the draft because of concerns about his ability to play the wing, his lack of an outside shot, and his questionable ball handling. All were real issues arguably even until the start of this season, but he can do things like this now, so it’s clearly time to reassess what his ceiling might be.
Next game: Vs. Toronto Raptors on Wednesday
Hopefully the Spurs will have everyone available when the Raptors come to visit, so we can see how the rotation looks when everyone is healthy now that Primo is gone.