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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Timberwolves

Encouraging signs in another loss.

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

It’s no easy feat to beat a team with the NBA’s best record on the road. That’s exactly what the San Antonio Spurs were tasked with on Wednesday night. Despite sticking with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the majority of the game, they couldn’t execute down the stretch, falling 102-94. This was an easier loss to stomach than some of the others that have come on the 15-game losing streak.

The Spurs defended well, holding the Timberwolves to 41.4% shooting from the field and 30% from three. They limited their turnovers to just 12, and actually outscored a bigger Wolves team in the paint 56-48. For a team that has struggled mightily on the defensive end, this is the kind of effort you like to see against a good team on national television.

Offensively there is a lot of work to be done. Gregg Popovich went with a new starting lineup consisting of Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Cedi Osman, Victor Wembanyama and Zach Collins – going away from Jeremy Sochan as the starting point guard. This allowed Vassell to get more reps on the ball, and Sochan to play off-ball in the second unit with Tre Jones, where he’s found success throughout the season.

The offensive results were mixed, but the Timberwolves are one of the league’s best defenses. The Spurs missed some open looks, but also created open shots in the paint against a playoff contender that has one of the league’s best rim protectors in Rudy Gobert. If Wembanyama finishes any of his three attempts at the rim late in the fourth, and Jones hits his wide open transition three with under a minute to go, the game could have looked completely different.

There are improvements to be made and adjustments to be implemented – but playing one of the league’s best close on the road isn’t a horrible result for a rebuilding squad.

Takeaways

  • Wednesday was an interesting clash in styles. The Timberwolves often play two bigs at the same time, as do the Spurs. The biggest difference? Minnesota’s bigs can shoot the basketball from deep. Karl Anthony-Towns and Naz Reid have been nailing threes all season, both shooting over 40% from deep. That allows them to play alongside a non-floor spacer like Gobert. The Spurs offense is generating a lot of pick and pop threes for Collins and Wembanyama, but the problem is they aren’t converting on wide open looks. They both went a combined 0-8 from deep on Wednesday. On the season, Collins is shooting 27.3% from deep, and Wemby is shooting 27.1%. You either hope that they can find their shooting strokes, or start trying to run more pick and roll rather than having them pop.
  • On the topic of big men, Popovich didn’t play a backup center on Wednesday. It was just one of the many rotational quirks of this game. He elected to play Collins and Wembanyama for the entire game, and let Sochan play power forward. This was a tough game for that decision because the Timberwolves bullied Sochan when he got the Towns or Gobert assignment. I’m interested in seeing if this is a one game decision or a trend that continues for a stretch of the season.
  • After Tyrese Haliburton dominated the Celtics in the In Season Tournament, a portion of Spurs fans took to social media to lament the decision to take Vassell over him in the draft. While Haliburton is an unquestionably great player, and certainly better than Vassell at this stage – I wouldn’t be so quick to jump on Devin’s back. Vassell has legitimately been the Spurs best scorer all season, and was great against Minnesota. He had 22 points, on 9-16 shooting from the field, and hit 4-8 of his deep shots. He was finishing at the rim, hitting threes off the bounce and the catch, and knocking down shots in the mid-range. He is one of the few Spurs who can create his own shot right now. It was bizarre that San Antonio went away from him in moments when he was hot. Yet, his continued development as a leading man is one of the biggest storylines of this season.
  • Johnson has also become somewhat underrated in my eyes. He’s a legit weapon on the fast break, getting coast to coast with a combination of strength, speed and creative finishing ability. He’s one of the Spurs few downhill driving threats, and has been steadily improving from three. He put up 21 points and 10 rebounds in the loss to Minnesota. After Wednesday he became one of five players in NBA history with 4,000 points, 1,300 rebounds, 500 assists and 400 three-pointers in their first 250 career games. The other four? Paul Pierce, Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic and RJ Barrett.