MINNEAPOLIS — On his 22nd birthday, Karl-Anthony Towns said he promised Tom Thibodeau the Wolves would not lose for the 13th straight time to the Spurs.
KAT and the Wolves delivered on Wednesday night, walking away with the 98-86 win to end their San Antonio blues. “I came in and I told Thibs ‘we ain’t going to lose this one.’ I made sure to go out there and keep my promise,” said Towns.
After posting a Beast Mode stat line of 26 points, 16 rebounds, two assists, two blocks, and one steal in 40 minutes—a performance that included stellar defense and marvelous shot contesting—the BIG KAT told the announced home sellout crowd the team decided, “enough is enough.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of everyone as a group,” Towns said, when asked about the defensive effort after going through a postgame weightlifting session with athletic trainer David Crewe (and other Wolves) in the training room connected to the spacious new locker room. “We went out there and said we needed to get stops and we got the stops—not just one, but multiple. That’s a sign of a team that’s getting very far.”
While the Wolves’ starting wings struggled mightily to get the ball in the bucket—Jimmy Butler was 2-13 and Andrew Wiggins was 4-11—the team responded by turning in the most complete defensive effort of the season, holding San Antonio to 41.8% shooting and a season-low in points allowed (their previous best was allowing 94 points to Charlotte 10 days ago).
“I thought Jimmy and Wigg had to battle through things tonight,” said Thibodeau. “Some nights it’s not going to be your night. Just help the team win. Come up with loose balls, make hustle plays, make the right play. I thought we made a lot of extra passes tonight that got us good looks.”
LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been on a tear to start his 11th NBA season, led San Antonio with 15 points, but took 19 true shooting attempts to get there and also got into foul trouble that limited his impact.
“We got used to relying on him to score and create, so when he got into foul trouble, we ran out of resources, and we didn’t have a good game,” said Manu Ginobili. “We did not shoot well. It’s a combination of things, but for sure it is harder when he is not on the court.”
Taj Gibson, the basketball version of Mr. Clean due to how many messes he seems to clean up on a nightly basis with offensive rebounds, hustle plays, and strong communication, went to battle with Aldridge early and kept him from getting into a quick groove. Gibson, like Aldridge, also got into early foul trouble—plus Gorgui Dieng was sitting out for the third straight game with a sprained right index finger—making way for Nemanja Bjelica to keep the flame on his hand burning for another night in extended minutes.
In truth, it’s becoming more ludicrous by the day that Belly isn’t playing at least 20 minutes a night. Thibs has to find ways to get him on the court more often because Professor Big Shots is absolutely killing it in a contract year and he was outstanding again. Everything flows so well with him on the floor. The spacing and ball movement is always better with him involved. Bjelica was a team-best +15 in 22 minutes, posting 11 points, 4 rebounds, two assists, and two stocks (one steal and one block).
“It’s a great feeling [winning], especially when we haven’t beat them in 12 times. It’s good. It’s a great feeling to beat one of the best teams in the league, especially at home. We just have to keep trying to win every game,” said Bjelica.
Jeff Teague finished with 16 points (7-13) in his fifth double-digit scoring effort in his last six games, including 2-4 from deep. Teague also recorded six assists. The new point guard in the North has now connected on at least one three in six straight games. His catch-and-shoot treys and ability to finish at the rim have been big positives. (Teague has a really smooth floater by the way.)
After trailing 24-18 at the end of one, the Wolves outscored San Antonio 39-19 in the second quarter and the bench was a large part of that response. The Wolves connected on 17-22 attempts from the floor during the frame and they would never relinquish the lead.
Shabazz Muhammad had his best game of the season, scoring nine points on five shots in 12 minutes. His passing was, well, pleasantly surprising given the expectations (not to be rude). There was this one dish Bazz had from the left corner all the way to Tyus Jones—who also played incredibly well, especially in the pick-and-roll with Towns—in the right corner that ultimately led to a few extra passes along the perimeter and eventually the bucket. Bazz had another baseline drive that resulted in an assist; the unselfishness, for once, was beautiful to see. I wish he understood what that brings to his game.
“The bench was great. The bench saved us,” said Thibodeau. “It was good. I thought Bazz was terrific. That gave us a big boost. Belly has been Belly. Tyus…that whole group played really well together. Jamal was terrific.”
What did Butler think of the bench? Quite simply ... “Huge.”
“The bench really took the lead for us and changed the entire game,” he continued. “They’re just as good as the starting group. They play together, they move the ball, they guard. Whenever they’re doing that with a lot of energy we get in the open floor and get some buckets.”
And what about Bazz’s strong showing after how rough things have been? “Bazz needed that,” said Butler. “He’s a hell of a player. I tell him every single day ‘yo, be aggressive, stay confident. You’re in this league for a reason.’ As long as he has the mindset and that mentality he’s going to be just fine.”
The Wolves entered the night being outscored 15.6 to 7.1 in transition points per game on average this season. Tonight it was 13-3 in their favor. While the Spurs are 27th in pace, playing slower than most teams, this was still something that had to happen sooner than later to inspire some confidence in the fastbreak affairs.
“Shit we talk about it every single day,” Butler told me when I asked about the transition defense. “It’s about time we bought into it and got back. What’s crazy is I know what three they hit in transition in the second half. It’s big for us. We need that.”
At the end of the night, Towns said “This is a great birthday present, I couldn’t ask for anything more.” Plenty of Wolves’ fans who have waited patiently for this team to arrive year after year probably couldn’t ask for anything more than a 9-5 team either. A convincing win over the Spurs, with or without Kawhi Leonard, means a lot.
If this season is proving anything to me, it’s that enough was finally enough. These are not the old Wolves.