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Wolves Drop Opener to Spurs, 107-99

A disappointing opener showed the Wolves have a lot of kinks to work out.

Minnesota Timberwolves  v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

It was clear tonight that Tom Thibodeau is trying to figure his team out as much as his players are trying to figure out how to play together. Thibs tried multiple lineup combinations, wound up playing some guys a lot more than expected and others less, changed things up significantly in the second half, but ultimately went with a group at the end that didn’t work, as the Wolves faded down the stretch in a 107-99 loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

After an early spate of threes from the Spurs, the Wolves were playing uphill all night, a tough prospect against a team as well coached as the Spurs. There were moments of quality from the Wolves at both ends, but the Spurs always had a response, often in the form of Dejounte Murray drive or Danny Green three, and the Wolves, though they took a brief one point lead midway through the fourth, could not put together enough stops to steal this one.

The closing lineup was an odd one, featuring a small ball look with Tyus Jones, Jamal Crawford, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, and Karl-Anthony Towns. This group was unable to do anything offensively, and the Spurs pulled away. This followed a terrific run by the Wolves, fueled by Nemanja Bjelica and Crawford, which whittled a 13 point Spurs lead late in the third quarter to a two point deficit with both Butler and Wiggins on the bench. Butler returned and hit the go-ahead jumper, but the lead was short-lived. Murray scored on the following possession, and the Wolves never led again.

Jones in for Jeff Teague was interesting. Jones was clearly more effective in the first half, when Teague struggled and Jones made a few nice plays, but Teague got some things going later. It was surprising Thibs didn’t go back to him, especially as Jones went off the boil in the fourth quarter.

In truth, I find myself more interested in how they played, and the rotations Thibs is trying out, than the actual results of this one. It seemed, especially in the first half, that guys were in and out of the game more than we are used to seeing. Towns had two separate rest periods in the first. Wiggins played only 14 minutes (and 30 overall for the game.) Taj Gibson played 18 first half minutes, while Bjelica had a bizarre two minute stint. But then after Gibson played his third quarter shift, he did not return to the game.

Gorgui Dieng, who played 14 minutes overall, is going to struggle for playing time. It’s not his era. If you are going to play Towns 35 minutes a night (hey! Only 35 minutes!) it’s gonna be tough. Dieng and Gibson played together for a stretch in the first half, and it did not go well. The Spurs induced both of them to shoot awkward mid-range jump shots, and it just didn’t work. That’s a tough pairing, because neither one of them is a real threat or floor spacer.

In addition, there are so few teams that play big enough to warrant the Towns-Dieng pairing. Even the Spurs, who generally play big lineups, closed with Rudy Gay as the four. There just aren’t a lot of combinations for Dieng to work in, other than as a straight back up to Towns.

Meanwhile, back to the game. Andrew Wiggins had an Andrew Wiggins game. He scored very effectively—26 points on 14 shots (though he was poor from the free throw line, going 4-9.) It was a bit different from what we’re used to, however. He took six threes (and made four of them,) and spent much less time with the ball in his hands than we saw last year. Except for a stretch in the third quarter when he took over offensively, it was much quieter offense from Wiggins. Catch-and-shoots, some cuts. Only the 14 FGAs, nine of which were in the second half.

Unfortunately, the defense was the same. A real lack of awareness, blown help, and poor positioning. I wonder if that had an effect on his minutes.

Jimmy Butler had a strangely poor night. He couldn’t find any rhythm offensively (12 points on 5-12 from the field,) had a couple of very sloppy turnovers, and overall seemed a bit out of sorts. He was, not surprisingly, the Wolves best defender, but he did not have the impact tonight we’re all expecting to see.

Really the best lineups for the Wolves tonight featured multiple bench players. That’s good news, as the Wolves will need quality depth throughout the season. The starting group was much less effective, however, something that obviously needs to change and almost certainly will.

Let’s close with some notes

  • Karl-Anthony Towns had his moments, but was unable to dominate proceedings. 18-13 is fine, but he had stretches of low impact.
  • Nobody played more than 35 minutes, which is amazing (Towns and Butler.) And good. Way to go Thibs.
  • The Wolves struggled to control the defensive glass, allowing 12 Spurs offensive rebounds. That contributed to the loss tonight.
  • The Spurs remain good, even without Kawhi Leonard. Murray was very impressive, LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green had their moments, Rudy Gay was excellent off the bench, and Kyle Anderson filled in well. They’re just pros.
  • The defense still isn’t great. But in some ways, I was more disappointed with the inconsistent offense tonight. Have to generate more shots at the rim, and stop hoisting so many mid range shots.
  • The point guards are not going to be doing a lot of PnR initiating (or initiating at all) apparently. Jones had a few, but really it was Butler or Towns or even Bjelica doing it.
  • I probably would have stuck with Bjelica in the fourth, and brought Teague back, but I was overall pretty happy with the minutes and the lineup creativity we saw.

So...what ya got?