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Wolves show great fight, still can't quite beat Spurs

Would you be at all surprised if I told you that the Spurs were powered by 17 points from a Serbian center you probably haven't heard of? I didn't think so.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

In stark contrast to last week's dispiriting loss to the San Antonio Spurs, this edition of the Minnesota Timberwolves losing to a much better team was well-contested throughout, and the Wolves actually had a decent shot at winning this game. However, there remain some pretty glaring issues, which this game did not exactly eliminate, as the final score of 101-95 to San Antonio showed.

From a Minnesota angle, the first thing that jumps off of the stat sheet is the free throw percentage. The Wolves, who entered tonight's game as the second-best free throw shooting team in the entire NBA (81.0%, one-tenth of a percentage point behind the New York Knicks), missed ten free throws, including several at key points down the stretch as the Spurs pulled away. Gorgui Dieng, who is still shooting over 85% on the season, missed both free throws in a set. For one of the Wolves' biggest strengths, this was a huge disappointment, and a statistical outlier that, had they made their average (between 19 and 20 of the 24 attempts), the closing stretch would have been much more interesting.

The Wolves actually led this game after the first quarter and at halftime. Gregg Popovich, among many others, vehemently disagreed with some of the refereeing decisions, and did not even make it to halftime, as he was T'd up twice and ejected late in the second quarter. The Spurs had some decisions that they could rightfully have disagreed with early in the game, but late, the needle swung back to fouls that could easily have been called on key shot attempts as the Wolves attempted to get back to a tie.

The early portion of the game, as it so often is, was all about Ricky Rubio's communication with the starting lineup on offense. The Wolves started the game on a 10-0 run, and Rubio keyed all of that movement. He had five assists in the first five minutes of the game, and had a grand total of fourteen by the end. His  distribution had every starter other than himself in double figures, including Kevin Garnett's highest scoring game of the season with 10 points. KG had a great first half, and his fifteen minutes, while normal, felt like they could have been pushed just a little.

The cracks were always visible, though, especially when the bench units came out. Adreian Payne had one of the showings that demonstrate that he can occasionally be a nice piece, with a couple of steals and nice shots during the second quarter. However, his second appearance late in the third quarter had a couple of bad fouls and was a portion of the Spurs taking the lead for good. Tyus Jones missed some rotations on Spurs attempts from beyond the arc, which could have been punished much more heavily than they were (San Antonio was only 5-17 from 3).

The main difference for San Antonio, however, was Serbian rookie center Boban Marjanovic, who scored 17 points on 7-7 shooting and generally dominated the Wolves' backup bigs. Marjanovic is absurdly big, listed at 7'3" and 290 lbs. It is not often that Gorgui Dieng looks small next to someone, but he looked pretty small, especially on one occasion when Marjanovic just took a shot attempt away from him. This was only the fourth time Marjanovic has played double-digit minutes in a game, and he legitimately kept the Spurs in it. His 17 points tied Kawhi Leonard for the most in the game by a Spur.

Ultimately, the Spurs were able to get stops on defense and the Wolves had a few disappointing turnovers as they tried to close what grew into a nine-point gap early through the quarter, the most memorable of which was Zach LaVine catching a pass with his foot on the out-of-bounds line. The Wolves had a chance at taking a game off the Spurs in San Antonio, a rare occurrence in itself (the Spurs moved to 18-0 on the year at home with this win), but could not execute well enough to beat San Antonio's well-oiled machine.

Quick Thoughts

  • Rubio was incredible throughout the game, and had Sam Mitchell brought him in just a little earlier in the fourth quarter, the Wolves might have stemmed the tide. Rubio had two steals in the last minute and almost singlehandedly scraped the Wolves into a game-tying situation, but the shots didn't fall. Ricky's final line: 7 points, 3 rebounds, 14 assists, and 4 steals, with only one turnover (a behind-the-back pass that someone didn't mind-read well enough to catch)

  • Andrew Wiggins had a decent game, leading all scorers with 18 points and adding six rebounds, and his work on offense against the terrifying monster that is Kawhi Leonard was fascinating to watch all evening. The issue was not Leonard, it was the free-throw line. Of the notable Wolves' struggles at the line, Wiggins' were the worst, going only 2-8 on the night, well below his season average of 73.3%. This will be a very frustrating loss for Wiggins.

  • Karl-Anthony Towns added another double-double to his tally for the year with 10 points and 12 rebounds. Towns had the individual highlights for the Wolves with a couple of ferocious dunks on beautiful feeds from Ricky Rubio, but could really have had more run for him offensively against David West, who, while a great basketball player, is not Tim Duncan (who was rested this game).

  • Another Wolf who could have used a little more on offense was Shabazz Muhammad. Bazz knocked down a couple of spot-up 3s, but only had four shot attempts in his 11 minutes on the court. Zach LaVine had most of the offensive run for the bench lineup, but when Bazz has the hot hand, it gives that lineup another outlet and another threat to work with, given that Tyus Jones is not much of a scorer at the 1. A fun note: the three point shooting numbers were not that starkly different (3-11 for Minnesota and 5-17 for San Antonio), but when the only players to make shots from distance are Shabazz and Payne, it's probably not good for the Wolves.

Highlight of the Night

There is at least one more good one of these out here, but continue to enjoy how fun these two players are together.