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Game Preview #46: Wolves at Spurs

Rudy Gobert and the Timberwolves continue their road trip in San Antonio, where they’ll take on Victor Wembanyama and the Spurs in a matchup of French bigs.

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves will return to the floor on Saturday night in the Alamo City, where they’ll take on Gobert’s fellow Frenchman Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back after capturing a 116-100 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night in San Antonio.

Head Coach Gregg Popovich confirmed after the game that Wembanyama is “probable” to resume playing both ends of back-to-backs after an ankle injury in December forced Wemby to sit out one of the two legs and play with a minutes restriction.


Game Info

  • Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (32-13) at San Antonio Spurs (9-36)
  • When: Saturday, January 27 at 7:30 PM CT
  • Where: Frost Bank Center — San Antonio, TX
  • TV: Bally Sports North (Michael Grady, Jim Petersen and Lea B. Olsen)
  • Radio: Wolves Radio App, KFAN FM 100.3
  • Line: Wolves -10.5, Total: 227 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)

Injury Report

Updated as of Saturday 1/26 at 12:35 PM CT:

Minnesota

OUT:

  • Jaylen Clark (right achilles tendon rupture rehab)
  • Mike Conley (left hamstring soreness)
  • Leonard Miller (G League assignment)
  • Josh Minott (G League assignment)
  • Wendell Moore Jr. (G League assignment)

San Antonio

AVAILABLE:

  • Dominick Barlow (two-way contract)

OUT

  • Charles Bassey (left ACL tear)
  • Sidy Cissoko (G League assignment)
  • Zach Collins (right ankle soreness)
  • Mamadi Diakite (two-way contract)
  • David Duke Jr. (two-way contract)

What To Watch For

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The Wemby Show

Some nights, you just appreciate the opportunity to watch special players take the floor. Saturday will certainly be one of them, as the Wolves will try to slow down Wembanyama, who has been on a tear in his last nine outings. Wemby is averaging 24.8 points on 50.6/32.6/86.4 shooting splits, 10.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 3.0 blocks and 0.7 steals in just 25.7 minutes per contest while working his way back from an ankle turn. In that stretch, the 7-foot-4 rookie has mostly played center alongside 6-foot-7 Julian Champagnie (a 40.2% 3-point shooter), as opposed to primarily playing the 4 like Wembanyama has for the majority of his first NBA season.

How the Timberwolves defend Wemby will be interesting as a result of him playing the 5 next a 4 that can shoot. Gobert certainly will check him for stretches in this game, but from where and how Minnesota brings help will be a fun chess match. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year has been excellent defending in space this season, but considering how much time Wembanyama spends on the perimeter as a spot-up shooter, cutter and driver, it could drag Gobert away from the rim, where he’s the most impactful.

So, if not Gobert, then who else?

Towns has actually guarded Wemby for the most total possessions across the teams’ two matchups this season, according to NBA.com, while Naz Reid ranks third.

But if KAT guards Wembanyama to disrupt him with more physicality, that means Gobert will likely have to play off of Champagnie, who takes 73% of his total shots from beyond the arc, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Or, could Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch and Defensive Coordinator Elston Turner get creative and put Gobert on point forward Jeremy Sochan, who takes just 25% of his shots from beyond the arc (2.8 attempts per game), where he shoots 37.2% this season (but 30.6% for his career)?

That would leave Mike Conley to guard Tre Jones, Jaden McDaniels to check Devin Vassell (San Antonio’s top perimeter scoring threat at 18.0 PPG), and Edwards to take Keldon Johnson, who is 20 pounds heavier and more physical than Vassell, thus making him a better option for Ant to take.

If I were making the call, that’s how I’d align the defense. Keeping Gobert around the rim to defend Wemby as a helper on drives, cuts and rolls at the cost of letting Sochan shoot as much as he wants makes sense to me. Towns has committed a total of three fouls in two games against the Spurs this season, so I would trust him to continue that trend on Saturday night.

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Bench Scoring

It is no secret that the Timberwolves’ bench has struggled profusely to put the ball in the basket in recent games. Minnesota’s reserve crew ranks 22nd in points per game this season (31.6 PPG on 45.8/35.7/73.6 shooting splits), but that number has nosedived to 15.0 PPG over the last three games — last in the NBA by 4.3 points — as a result of 32.7/26.3/66.7 shooting splits.

For context, the league median team (the Toronto Raptors) are scoring 35.3 bench PPG in that stretch.

Reid’s worst three-game stretch of the season is the primary culprit for the Wolves’ scoring difficulties off the bench. The fan favorite has scored five points in three straight games, marking just the second time this season he has failed to hit double-digits in three consecutive outings. The good news for Naz is that San Antonio ranks 29th in points allowed to opposing bigs, so this is a spot in which he can get back on track. Reid scored 15 points, grabbed four offensive rebounds and dropped a pair of dimes in the last matchup with the Spurs — and that was with shooting 1/7 from beyond the arc. If he can maintain that scoring efficiency inside the arc while knocking down multiple triples, Reid should get out of his slump. The triples should be there, too, as San Antonio’s bench frequently plays a 2-3 zone defense to try and keep opponents out of the paint.

As for the rest of the Wolves’ bench, they haven’t fared much better.

Kyle Anderson has scored only 11 total points on 3/9 shooting in the last three matchups; he has dished 18 assists while committing only two turnovers in that span, but given that two of the team’s key scorers — Reid and Edwards — are working through it, everyone needs to score more, Anderson included.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker has filled in admirably for Conley at the point, but now that he is shifting back to the bench, the Wolves will need more of his 3-point shooting. He’s made six of his last 12 fires and has shown some good juice off the dribble attacking close-outs, too, while maintaining an 11-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Shake Milton has seen rotation minutes, too, as the Wolves are likely trying to showcase him a bit ahead of the February 8 NBA Trade Deadline. Milton has struggled in his return over the last three appearances, making just three of his 10 shots. Like Anderson and NAW, he boasts a nice A-TO ratio of 8-1, but they need him to score, and he hasn’t been able to do so, delivering just 12 points. As a result, he could be the player the Wolves decide to move at the deadline in order to net some combination of additional scoring, playmaking and shooting off the bench.

As the starters work through a rough patch offensively, they desperately need bench to be more impactful scoring the ball — at least at a level that isn’t dead last in the NBA by a wide margin.