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Spurs’ comeback falls short against Timberwolves in in-season tournament debut

The Spurs started and finished the game strong, but struggled in the two middle quarters and are now on a four-game losing streak.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a valiant effort to mount a comeback, the Spurs started the in-season tournament with a loss. They dropped their fourth straight game in a hard-fought battle against the Timberwolves, which rode a great third quarter to a 110-117 win.

The Spurs started the game looking like a team that wanted to put an embarrassing loss behind them. Their energy was fantastic and it seemed to take the Timberwolves by surprise. The defense was making life hard for the visitors by being disruptive and was creating opportunities for easy baskets on the other end, either directly in transition or with San Antonio finding ways to attack early or find mismatches. The pace eventually slowed down a little but for a while, the Silver and Black dictated how the matchup was shaping up. As the second units started to check in the Wolves’ two big men lineups gave the home team some trouble and their zone defense confused their young opponent a couple of times, but the Spurs still led by five after one.

There was a moment after a fantastic start of the second frame in which San Antonio pushed the lead to double digits when it looked like they could really create a big buffer. The transition buckets were still fueling the offense and Victor Wembanyama was making his presence felt. Unfortunately, the opponent was a very talented Timberwolves team that has enough experience to know how to turn things around. Minnesota’s defense tightened up a bit, the turnovers became less common, Anthony Edwards decided to take over and suddenly it was harder for the Silver and Black to get stops and run. The visitors closed the gap and eventually took control of the game. Not even some great Wemby buckets could stop them from carrying a two-point lead to the locker room.

As the third quarter kicked off, Minnesota decided to really show the young Spurs how it’s done. In a role reversal from the first period, it was the visitors who were playing with more energy and physicality. The Spurs were still getting some buckets but they had to labor for them. Forcing turnovers allowed the Timberwolves to run and they were forcing their way to the paint while San Antonio futilely tried to crack their zone defense with long balls that missed. A couple of foul calls before the ball was inbounded turned the momentum the Wolves’ way even more and Wembanyama made some mistakes on both ends that cost the Silver and Black. The young Spurs kept fighting and tried to make a run late in the period, but their opponent held them off by hitting a couple of threes to head into the fourth quarter up 17.

The fear at this point was that the Spurs were simply going to let go of the rope and the game would turn into another blowout. In a show of maturity, they kept trying to get back in it, which is encouraging going forward and was something Gregg Popovjch made sure to highlight in the post-game press conference. For the most part, both teams just traded shots, as San Antonio couldn’t string stops together until a small unit with Wembanyama at center changed the game. The defense got better, which allowed the Spurs to push the pace, and quickly a lead that was comfortable for most of the frame was reduced to single digits. A lack of defensive rebounding and some untimely mistakes prevented the comeback from being completed, but as far as losses go, this was a good one for a team looking to improve night by night.

Game notes

  • What is the in-season tournament, you might be wondering. We have an explainer for you. The basics are that the Spurs are in a group with four other teams and the winner of that group, along with two wildcards, will move on to a single elimination stage.
  • Wembanyama finished the game with 29 points, nine rebounds, four assists and four blocks following a bad game against the Knicks. Every time he faces adversity he bounces back quickly. The maturity the 19-year-old is showing to start the season is impressive.
  • In his return to the starting lineup after coming off the bench against the Knicks following a minor injury, Devin Vassell dropped 29 points in 16 shots, going 6-for-11 from beyond the arc. For most of the game, he was the only one who could get a bucket from outside. The Spurs are a different beast when Vassell is healthy.
  • The point guard experiment is taking attention away from the fact that Jeremy Sochan does so many things. The Spurs are asking him to guard the opponent’s best perimeter scorer every night. He fights for loose balls and boards, establishes a good position in the post on mismatches and even hits some threes if he’s open. Yes, the six turnovers are bad, but they shouldn’t overshadow the rest of his night.
  • Keldon Johnson’s stat line (six points in 10 shots) is horrendous but Keldon still plays hard no matter how his offense is going. He couldn’t stop Karl-Anthony Towns, but he gave it his best despite the size disadvantage. Keldon still has a role player’s mindset, in a good way.
  • Cedi Osman has fallen back to earth after a scoring-hot start of the season and only got 16 minutes in this one. It was a tough matchup for him. Doug McDermott was cold as well and Malaki Branham couldn’t get a three to fall. The bench scored just 21 points and it was in part because the shooters really struggled.
  • Charles Bassey is the perfect backup center for the Spurs. Energetic, athletic, cheap, and willing to play just 12 minutes while going all out without complaining. Six rebounds and two blocks for the energy big, who did his job.
  • Tre Jones started slow and then became one of the main reasons the Spurs kept the game close. His ability to push the pace and his vision to pass ahead adds a new dimension to the offense, and he can make plays on defense. Finding ways to have him on the court with Wemby as much as possible is a must.

Play of the game

The Wembanyama finish will get most of the attention, for obvious and deserved reasons, but Jones passing ahead and McDermott being aware that Victor was about to be open is what makes this play. More of this, please!

Next game: vs. Heat on Sunday

The Spurs will host the Heat before playing the Kings and Thunder in games that count for the in-season tournament.