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Wednesday, December 06, 2023

West Leading Timberwolves Outlast Cellar Dwelling Spurs, 102-94

Minnesota defeated San Antonio 102-94 in the first game of ESPN's Wednesday night doubleheader, and the matchup can be summarized in one sentence: Winning teams find ways to win, and losing teams find ways to lose.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have the best record in the NBA, while the San Antonio Spurs have the worst record in the Western Conference and are mired in a 15 game losing streak. Although the Timberwolves have not won a playoff series since 2004, they have reached the playoffs each of the past two seasons; the Spurs have been a losing team for the past four seasons, and they spent part of that time tanking in the hope of getting the number one overall draft pick so that they could obtain Victor Wembanyama. Now they have Wembanyama and--not surprisingly--they are still a losing team. Once a team accepts losing and cultivates losing habits it is very difficult to get rid of those losing habits and that losing mentality. The numbers prove that tanking does not work, but if you understand basketball then you understand why tanking does not work: losing teams find ways to lose.

The Timberwolves shot just 36-87 (.414) from the field versus the Spurs, but they outscored the Spurs 31-23 in the fourth quarter to squeeze out the win. Mike Conley scored a team-high 18 points, Anthony Edwards added 17 points, Rudy Gobert contributed 16 points plus a game-high 20 rebounds, Naz Reid chipped in 15 points, and Karl-Anthony Towns had 14 points. Since there seems to be a statistic for everything now, it would be interesting to know how often a team's leading scorers in a game have scored 14-18 points in sequence with no duplicate numbers. 

Devin Vassell (22 points on 9-16 field goal shooting) and Keldon Johnson (21 points on 8-15 field goal shooting) were prolific and efficient for San Antonio, but the other Spurs combined to score 51 points on 21-70 (.300) field goal shooting. Wembanyama had 12 points on 4-13 field goal shooting, plus 10 rebounds and one blocked shot. 

As those numbers indicate, this game was hardly an instant classic (or any kind of classic); the biggest bright spot was that the great Hubie Brown provided ESPN's color commentary. It is always a special treat when Brown calls a game. I fondly recall when he did all of the big games; now, at 90 years old, he only calls games periodically, and I believe that his most recent national telecast prior to tonight's game was New York's 126-105 win versus San Antonio on November 8.

In his remarks prior to the start of tonight's game, Brown singled out the outstanding play of Edwards and Towns, who are both not only prolific scorers but also efficient shooters and good rebounders. Edwards is averaging 26.2 ppg and 5.9 ppg with shooting splits of .464/.377/.864, while Towns is averaging 22.2 ppg and 9.0 rpg with shooting splits of .503/.418/.911. 

Regarding Wembanyama, Brown candidly noted that his scoring (19.3 ppg) is good but his field goal percentage (.437) is subpar and his three point field goal percentage (.271) is the "biggest disappointment and biggest eye opener" thus far for the highly touted rookie. Brown described him as a 7-4 player who plays like he is 6-4. That could be considered praise of Wembanyama's versatility or criticism of his lack of a refined back to the basket game in the paint. Early in the fourth quarter, Brown noted that Wembanyama had been "neutralized by size." At that point, Wembanyama had scored six points on 2-8 field goal shooting. "When he's moving without the ball, he's excellent...but tonight he's not getting any touches," Brown added. 

Minnesota sleepwalked through the first half, scoring a season low 46 points and trailing by seven at halftime before outscoring the Spurs 56-41 in the second half. Both teams shot three pointers with all of the accuracy and dexterity of a blindfolded person swinging at a pinata in the backyard while battling 40 mile per hour winds: the Timberwolves shot 12-40 (.300) from beyond the arc, while the Spurs shot 8-36 (.222). Brown had a succinct comment about the barrage of long range blanks: "Where's your game in the paint?" Teams have become such slaves to "advanced basketball statistics" that they keep shooting three pointers even on off nights and even when they have matchup advantages that they could exploit in the paint or in screen/roll actions.

So far, it appears that I underestimated the Timberwolves, as I did not pick them to be a playoff team. The Timberwolves rank first in the league in points allowed and defensive field goal percentage plus third in blocked shots with Gobert protecting the paint and enabling the perimeter defenders to take chances because they know that he can erase their mistakes. I am often skeptical of teams that did not appear to be contenders but start the season quickly, but the way that the Timberwolves are being successful seems to be sustainable: they play tenacious defense, they are methodical but efficient on offense (ranking 19th in points scored but fifth in field goal percentage), and they make fewer boneheaded plays than they did in previous seasons. I am not convinced that by the end of the season they will still have the NBA's best record, but they definitely look like a team that will not only make the playoffs but that will have a chance to win a series.

It has not been a great season--or a great past several years--for San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich, whose inflated sense of entitlement is exceeded only by his team's loss totals. When the Spurs won five championships between 1999 and 2014, Popovich repeatedly said that the players deserve all of the credit and that he appreciates them letting him coach them; at the time, that seemed like self-deprecation/false modesty, but the Spurs' record in the post-Tim Duncan/post-Kawhi Leonard era is awful, and there are no signs that things will improve any time soon. Wembanyama is a raw talent who needs to develop his body and to refine his game to be successful at the NBA level--and he also needs to be surrounded by a supporting cast that complements his skills.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:57 PM



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