Teams are supposed to be tired on the second night of a back-to-back, especially as the game wears on against the top team in the Western Conference. That’s exactly what the Spurs were up against after beating Portland the night before, this time facing the Minnesota Timberwolves. However, they bucked the trend tonight, mostly playing from around ten behind through the first three quarters but never truly letting the game get away from them before exploding in the fourth quarter for a thrilling come-from-behind win, arguably their best of the season.
Despite some mistakes early, such as committing a couple of fouls and turning the ball over after a rebound, Victor Wembanyama, who is cleared to play in back-to-backs again, was feeling it with a couple of threes. He ended his first stint with 12 points and the Spurs up 18-16, but once again the Spurs struggled once Wemby left the court, giving up a 12-0 run and spotting the Timberwolves a 29-20 lead with just over two minutes to left. They couldn’t score against the league’s top ranked defense while Minnesota continued got whatever they wanted on offense (including 10 free throws), and the quarter ended with the Spurs down 36-23.
Doug McDermott finally broke the ice from three for anyone not named Wemby early in the second quarter, and the Spurs eventually cut what had been a 15-point deficit down to six at 40-34, forcing a Minnesota timeout. The Timberwolves responded with a quick 7-0 run, to get the lead back to double digits, and even though Devin Vassell found some life on offense, they still couldn’t get stops on the other end until the Wolves caught the turnover bug in the final minutes. It was looking like the Spurs might be able to take a single-digit deficit to halftime thanks to a three from Tre Jones and jumper from Jeremy Sochan, but they gave up five quick points to Anthony Edwards before the buzzer and went to the locker room down 64-52.
Vassell hit a couple of threes to open the third quarter, but although the offense was better at finding good looks against the Wolves’ stout defense, they still struggled to really put a dent in the lead as Minnesota remained hot from the field, still shooting 60% for the game by the end of the quarter. Back-to-back threes from Julian Champagnie and Jones briefly cut the lead to seven, but without any kind of sustained run, they were still down ten heading into the final frame, 80-90.
However, they finally got going to start the fourth with a 12-2 run triggered by threes from McDermott and Keldon Johnson and three straight turnovers by Minnesota. The run continued after a timeout with another McDermott three to briefly retake the lead, followed by five straight points from Sochan to trigger another timeout. Wemby took his final break at this point, but the Spurs continued to hold their own on offense until he returned thanks to some tough makes by Vassell.
A Wemby three put the Spurs up by five with under two minutes left before Edwards tied things back up with 30 seconds left with a three and reverse layup, sandwiched around two missed Wemby free throws. Johnson’s hustle then got the lead back for the Spurs with a free throw off an offensive rebound with seven seconds left. Despite probably wishing they could have those three missed free throws back, they played great defense on the final play after a Minnesota timeout to advance the ball. They forced a long pass to Edwards deep back into the backcourt, played him close to force him to give up the ball with excellent help defense from Johnson, and finally forced Towns into a desperation three (again with help defense from KJ) that fell short, preserving the thrilling 113-112 victory.
- Good things happen for the Spurs when multiple players show up, and tonight they got good games from each of their top five players. Wemby had a solid 23 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists in 30 minutes (what minutes restrictions?). Vassell was explosive all game with 25 points on 11-17 shooting, including hitting some tough shots in the fourth quarter. Sochan picked the right time to go off, with 7 of his 13 points coming during the big run of the fourth quarter, and Jones had a 12-point, 11-rebound double-double. Finally, Johnson was the sparkplug the Spurs need off the bench with 14 points, which may sound unexciting, but they were huge.
- Jones picked up his third foul and had to sit just a few minutes into the second quarter after a collision with Towns on the fast break, but video review showed the only contact was Towns shoving Jones in the back. Unfortunately, Pop had already lost his challenge defending another call against Jones in the first quarter (what appeared to be a charge was too close to overturn, and the refs upheld the blocking call). To add insult to injury, he was later was shoved down by Rudy Gobert in the third quarter, and the ref could be seen telling Pop, “It wasn’t that bad”. He just couldn’t catch a break.
- There’s a running joke on Spurs social media that anyone can slap Dominick Barlow in the face and not get called (because it seems to happen a lot), and it happened again during the heat of the fourth quarter when he was elbowed in the nose by Towns but was still called for the foul. Ball don’t lie because he missed the free throw, but it’s somewhat annoying that KAT not only got away with two borderline dirty plays in the game, but they were both somehow called fouls on the Spurs.
- It wasn’t nearly as hilarious and chaotic as a few years ago (which to this day still makes me laugh), but a bat interrupted the game in the first two minutes, and once again, the Coyote was ready. Complete with Batman costume, he caught it with his net before flexing to a cheering crowd. This time the players knew to just get out of the way and let him work, and Gregg Popovich could be seen pointing up to the suite where Manu Ginobili was sitting and laughing.
There was a BAT flying around the Spurs’ arena pic.twitter.com/Jn9aDq424X— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) January 28, 2024
Play of the Game
We already covered Wemby’s Shammgod play over Gobert, but even then, there were much more important plays on this game, perhaps none more so than the final defensive possession. (Does that count as a play? Who cares.)
Here's the final defensive possession to seal the #Spurs win. Watch Keldon Johnson come up for fantastic help defense on both Anthony Edwards to force the pass, then KAT to contest the shot.— Nate Ryan (@nateryansports) January 28, 2024
The reactions from Victor & Keldon say it all. Great energy in the building tonight. pic.twitter.com/5fCZCdELr2
Up next: Monday vs. Washington Wizards
Believe it or not, the Spurs are the only team in the league that is undefeated in games they are favored to win, which admittedly isn’t many at just 4-0. Monday should be another such game against the Wizards, as well as a chance to win three straight for the first time since December 2022.