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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Timberwolves

San Antonio’s defensive continues failing them down the homestretch of the regular season.

Minnesota Timberwolves v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

The shorthanded San Antonio Spurs lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a high-scoring affair that saw Karl-Anthony Towns score a career-high 60 points on their lackluster defense. Although the good guys held pace with their Western Conference opponent throughout the first half, no one could come up with any meaningful stops in the second half.

Keldon Johnson dropped a career-high 34 points with eight rebounds and four assists. Dejounte Murray was up to his usual stat-stuffing antics, with 30 points, four boards, and 12 assists. Meanwhile, Jakob Poeltl chipped in 21 points and three blocks, Lonnie Walker IV added 22 points off the pine, and Devin Vassell notched 17 points, three blocks, and two steals.

While Gregg Popovich and company had an excellent opportunity to make up ground in a crowded play-in tournament race, they finished the night a game-and-a-half ahead of the Kings. The Blazers and Lakers losing have kept their postseason hopes alive, but the Silver and Black must get back on track to regain control of their place in the standings.

Observations

  • Complaining about officials is often considered low-hanging fruit, though sometimes it’s completely warranted. That was the case on Monday night as the referees ruined the natural rhythm of the contest with questionable calls and unnecessarily prolonged reviews, and this isn’t a Spurs-specific criticism. Karl-Anthony Towns received a flagrant and technical foul that each took more than ten minutes of real-time for the crew to decide on a verdict. Zach Collins earned a technical foul for walking over notorious agitator Patrick Beverly. And while both teams only combined for 44 fouls by the final buzzer, it felt like there were tons of ticky-tacky whistles. The average game lasts about two-and-half hours with timeouts, free throws, halftime, national anthems, and clock stoppages factored in. The typical matchup has seen 43.4 free throw attempts this season. San Antonio and Minnesota combined for 58 trips to the charity stripe, extending the game enough for my fiancée and me to make a pitstop at Cici’s Pizza for Pi Day, grab some gas, and carefully drive home in the middle of a thunderstorm before the end of the first quarter. As a former intramural ref, I’m not one to point fingers at the officiating staff. And look, they ultimately got a lot of the calls correct. But the NBA has to find a better way to improve their review process without sucking the air out of the building.
  • Playing sound defense has troubled the Silver and Black all season, which is bizarre considering they roster Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl, a pair of players widely regarded among the top defenders at their positions. All of San Antonio’s issues were on full display on Monday night as they gave up 149 points to the Timberwolves, the highest total for a game that didn’t go to overtime this season. Of course, Karl-Anthony Towns exploding for a career-high and franchise-record 60 points and 17 rebounds had a lot to do with Minnesota bloating the box score. The 26-year-old center is one of the best scorers in the league, so it’s not like most teams have much if any success stopping the three-time All-Star. But he more than doubled his season average while scoring 32 points in the third period, falling five points short of the NBA record for most points in a quarter, and that was unacceptable. Aside from the historic performance from KAT, the Wolves also poured in 51 points on 17-of-33 shooting (51.5%) from three-point-land, scoring the second-most points at the AT&T Center since the Spurs moved into the building during the 2002-2003 season. This point party all stemmed from poor defensive execution. San Antonio should never have asked Poeltl or Zach Collins to guard Towns one-on-one once he got on a roll, and the latter has to pay better attention to detail than to leave him uncovered multiple times as a trailer in transition. And while Dejounte can pick the pocket of any ballhandler in the NBA, he has to figure out a way to fight around screens when his big men are in drop coverage. Murray often gets caught on those screens, leaving his center to fend for himself against guards or defend two players at once. He isn’t the only one either. Devin Vassell, Tre Jones, and Lonnie Walker IV are also to blame.
  • On a more positive note, Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV, and Jakob Poeltl put together encouraging nights on the other side of the ball that highlighted progress they have made in specific areas since the All-Star Break. Murray got to the charity stripe ten times, and he has now averaged 6.6 free throw attempts across his last eight games. As for Keldon, the third-year forward has finished 68.9% of his shots at the rim over that same stretch. That includes going 7-of-8 inside the restricted area against the Timberwolves. For reference, that’s a far cry from his 58.4% from that zone before the All-Star Break. Moving onto Lonnie, we were all aware of his heater over the final leg of the Rodeo Road Trip, and just when it looked like he may be running out of steam, the 23-year-old swingman exploded for 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting in 26 minutes off the bench on Monday. Last but certainly not least, Jakob Poeltl continued doing a complete 180 as a free throw shooter. The towering center nailed a lousy 46.6% of his shots at the line through the first four months of the season. That number has stood at 58.8% since February 25, which isn’t great, but at least it’s trending in the right direction. And Poeltl shooting 3-of-4 on freebies versus the Wolves was another encouraging sign for a guy who hasn’t found much success from the line.