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Spurs 125, Wolves 122: The Spurs Are Still Very Much the Spurs

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In his return from a six-game absence with a dislocated left wrist, Karl-Anthony Towns revived a lifeless Wolves squad that ultimately fell short in overtime at Target Center.

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Harrison Barden/Getty Images

Has a six-game absence ever felt longer than the one the Wolves experienced in the wake of Karl-Anthony Towns’s left wrist dislocation against the Jazz on December 26th?

That was just two weeks ago to the day but man, did it feel longer than that.

Tonight, KAT made his return at Target Center to breathe new life into a team that looked completely helpless without him. Towns knew it wasn’t the best for his personal health, but he was ready to go to war for the team. “It was like 26 or 27 minutes left before tip and the actual words I said was ‘F*** it.’ I just put my jersey on and said it’s time to go play. Obviously it wasn’t the best decision for my personal health at all. But it was the best decision I could make for my team so that’s what I did,” Towns said postgame.

With Towns back in the lineup, the Wolves ended their streak of six double-digit losses but extended their losing streak to seven in a heartbreaker in OT.

One of the toughest players in the NBA gutted out an injury and played 37 minutes tonight, which was more than Ryan Saunders expected him to. As expected, he was pretty sore afterwards.

From the jump, it was evident that this Wolves team had a different energy with their franchise cornerstone back in the lineup. Even with his significantly hampered left hand, Towns’s mere presence on the floor, and especially on the perimeter, unquestionably resulted in more spaced-out half-court offense. Towns wasn’t as aggressive in the first quarter, as it was evident he needed to feel out his injured left wrist and opted to get others going instead of himself. But, boy did he help.

Early in the first quarter, Malik Beasley, Jarrett Culver, and D’Angelo Russell all took advantage of a clear paint and attacked open driving lanes for easy layups and spot-up 3s in drive-and-kick scenarios. Beasley had potentially his best quarter of the season, dropping 11 points behind three triples. While the five-man group of Russell, Beasley, Culver, Hernangomez, and Towns had never started together, it didn’t look like they missed a beat on offense. On the defensive end, Towns protected the rim very well, blocking two shots and altering probably nearly a dozen looks from inside the free throw line.

Minnesota put 34 points on the board in the first quarter, with six of the eight players who played getting in the scoring column. The Wolves shot 68.4 percent from the field and were 6/6 from deep in one of their strongest overall quarters this season. The Wolves took a six-point lead into the second quarter, 34-28.

After a scoreless first quarter, DeMar DeRozan exploded in the second quarter for 16 points on 5/9 shooting and six makes from the charity stripe. The veteran found his groove attacking the rim and getting to the line, and stayed in the groove all night long. Whether it was Jarrett Culver, Anthony Edwards, or D’Angelo Russell, the Wolves struggled to contain the four-time All-Star throughout the night. It was a night where the Wolves sorrily missed All-NBA caliber defender Josh Okogie, who is close to a return from his left hamstring strain.

The Timberwolves really struggled in the second quarter with two things: containing penetration and turning the ball over. Minnesota simply couldn’t contain defenders or defending without fouling. The Spurs shot 11/12 from the line in the quarter, thanks to 8 Wolves team fouls, which outnumbered their assists (six) in the frame. To make matters worse, Minnesota had six turnovers in the quarter alone, equalling San Antonio’s number for the entire game.

The Spurs took a two-point lead into the locker room, 60-58.

Minnesota really came alive in the third quarter, which has been their achilles heal all night long. Coming into tonight, the Wolves had an average third quarter scoring margin of -7.9, which is worst in the NBA by nearly two full points. Tonight, the Wolves let a San Antonio lead get out to seven, 70-63, at the 7:54 mark, but fought back hard with a sense of urgency, thanks to KAT really starting to find a rhythm offensively.

In that third quarter, Towns added 12 points on 4/6 shooting, got to the line twice, and contested shots at the rim very nicely. He was unafraid to post up, essentially with just one hand (which made him more predictable), but still was able to score over LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs defense with relative ease. KAT’s aggressiveness helped get Aldridge in foul trouble, but also resulted in some added pain to his wrist via Aldridge slapping down on his hand.

The attacking nature of Towns’s game evolved throughout the contest, simply because it took him time to figure out exactly what he could and couldn’t do in live game action. When asked about it postgame, KAT said, “I You’ll have to watch the tape for that, but I can tell you right now, it ain’t much. I don’t know. I know it doesn’t involve a basketball, but it’s very minimal, what I can do with my left hand in basketball, in life, but I’m going to do whatever I can humanly possible do for this team.”

Knowing that making playoffs is an attainable goal, but can quickly crumble with a couple bad stretches, Towns continued, “I don’t want us to fail and I don’t want us to get too far behind the 8-ball, because playoffs (I don’t know?) in the West.”

The sense of urgency KAT is radiating is important. This team is now 2-7 and needs to turn it around very quickly if it truly wants to compete for one of the top 10 seeds in the West. Despite a loss tonight, Towns was encouraged. He said, “Obviously we didn’t come out on the right end of the scoresheet but I thought we played very competitive today. I thought we played with pride. I don’t think recently that we played with a lot of intensity and urgency.” There may not be any moral victories in the NBA, but Towns said tonight was “a step in the right direction.”

Perhaps the most impactful aspect of the third quarter was the Wolves getting Anthony Edwards attacking downhill in the screen and roll game, which ignited both the offense and the incredibly loud fan noise speakers.

While Edwards was terrific attacking the rim with the ball in his hands tonight, it needs to happen more.

Entering tonight, Edwards averaged 6.2 3-point attempts per game, but only 6.8 drives per game. While it is good that he’s shooting more 3s than mid-range shots, he needs to be attacking the rim twice as much as he shoots 3s.

Tonight, when he flew around screens, he was able to go jet past perimeter defenders and finish through bigs defending the rim. For a 19-year-old rookie, his driving ability is an incredibly impressive and rare skill that the Wolves need to continue to unlock as much possible.

The Wolves can always put another shooter on the floor, but don’t have any extra 6-foot-6, 225-pound lightning rods who can make advanced reads and collapse the entire defense just by driving to the rim. The Wolves second unit can be among the best in the league if it runs through Edwards, rather than Rubio trying to get everyone involved. Edwards can collapse defenses in a way simply no other member of the team outside of Towns is able to and that has to be a focal point of the Wolves’ gameplan night in and night out moving forward.

On the backs of KAT and Edwards, the Timberwolves took an 85-83 lead into the fourth quarter. The final period of regulation was back and forth throughout, which made for an exciting finish at Target Center. Malik Beasley came alive early in the fourth, draining two big threes that got the Wolves the lead back on both occasions. Perhaps more importantly, the Russell/Towns PnR battery was excellent, which helped D’Angelo Russell come alive after a very quiet first three quarters (he had just 9 points and 3 assists heading into the fourth). Russell poured in 7 points, 2 assists, and 0 turnovers in what was a great quarter for him, aided by some excellent screens from Karl-Anthony Towns.

His fourth quarter performance culminated with his biggest shot of the year to give Minnesota the lead with 15.5 seconds to play.

Despite missing a shot to win with under two seconds left, the Wolves seemingly had all the momentum heading into overtime. That faded quickly when the Spurs asserted that they are still, in fact, the Spurs we all know and love (hate playing against). Dejounte Murray got things going with a wide open corner 3, followed by a 3 from Patty Mills, a put-back from Keldon Johnson, a couple of free throws from DeRozan, and finally with a huge short corner shot from Mills to put it on ice.

While the Wolves’ offensive execution was lacking in overtime, it was very refreshing to see the team once again play in a very competitive, back and forth game against one of the teams they’ll compete for a playoff spot with.

Karl-Anthony Towns was back and still managed 25 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 blocks essentially playing with one hand. Anthony Edwards came alive and showcased the talents and physicality that made him the number pick. D’Angelo Russell hit clutch shots. Malik Beasley had 29 points and seven 3s. Sure, the Wolves lost, but the pieces they need to step up all stepped up in their own way, which is encouraging moving forward. We haven’t seen a game to build off of since KAT left and it’s important that the Wolves have a game they can watch tape from, learn from, and get right back on the saddle tomorrow and get back in the win column.

Game Notes:

  • Jarred Vanderbilt played alongside Karl-Anthony Towns for the first time in a regular season game tonight. While it was only a few minutes, it is likely an indication that the Wolves will use him more than they have in meaningful minutes moving forward.
  • After starting three of the six games KAT missed, Ed Davis was a DNP - Coach’s Decision tonight. He figures to be out of the rotation with KAT back and Naz Reid producing.
  • Speaking of Naz Reid, he had his best game of the young season tonight. The former LSU standout had 16 points on 6/8 shooting, including 3/4 from deep, to go along with 7 rebounds and 3 blocks.
  • The Wolves out-rebounded the Spurs 53-48, shot nearly seven percentage points better from the field (50 to 43.6) and nearly 10 from 3 (50 to 40.6), and won the assist battle 29-22, and still lost. The culprit? Turnovers. Minnesota turned it over 17 times, from which San Antonio scored 24 points. That was a huge factor in the Spurs topping the Wolves 20-4 in fast break points tonight, too.
  • Covering tonight were Minnesota +4 and O235. Minnesota is now 4-5 against the spread and 5-4 over-under.

Full Game Highlights:

The Wolves are right back at it with the Spurs tomorrow at 7 PM at Target Center. With KAT back and Josh Okogie hopefully joining the fun tomorrow, Sunday seems like a good day to get back in the win column.