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Timberwolves rely on defense, the bench to top Spurs

The Wolves used to struggle against these teams. Now they’re snapping losing streaks. Whether it was the Thunder, Pelicans, or Hornets, the Timberwolves have played well this season against teams that had previously given them fits.

You can now add the San Antonio Spurs to that list, whom they defeated 98-86 on Wednesday night. The victory snapped a 12-game losing streak to San Antonio going back to 2014. 2014 was in an interesting year for both clubs. It was the year of the last Spurs championship and the last Wolves team to win 40 games.

Wednesday win is a part of a bigger picture of a decades-long struggle against the Spurs. The Wolves are 29-55 all-time against the Spurs. Their .254 winning percentage is their worst against any team with the Los Angeles Lakers a close second at .274. At least the Lakers have had some down years; the Spurs have gone from David Robinson to Tim Duncan to Kawhi Leonard without missing a step.

Even in the postseason, the Timberwolves haven’t been able to overcome the Spurs. They were defeated 3-1 in both 1999 and 2002 when the first round of the playoffs was a five-game series.

Despite beating the Spurs without Kawhi Leonard, this victory still matters. Wins against the Spurs have been so scarce and infrequent that beating them is significant. The 2014 Timberwolves were a fringe playoff team and they were the most recent team to beat them until Wednesday night. This could signify that the 2018 Timberwolves have a similar, if not greater potential for their season.

It takes your best to beat the Spurs and rarely does any team fall into a win against them.

Towns celebrates birthday in front of 18,000 of his closest friends

It’s hard to believe that Karl-Anthony Towns turned just 22 years old on Wednesday. What better way to celebrate your birthday than beating the Spurs at home in front of a sellout crowd? Towns was magnificent with 26 points and 16 rebounds on 10-for-18 shooting. His two blocks and lone steal were just icing on the cake.

See what I did there?

Winning with defense

The performance the Spurs gave on Wednesday night was atypical of what we’re used to seeing from them. Committing 16 turnovers and allowing 24 points off turnovers is unusual. The Timberwolves didn’t turn the ball over either, finishing with just six on the night. Forcing mistakes is usually a Spurs signature but the Wolves were the opportunistic ones.

Coming into Wednesday night, the Wolves had been outscored by an average of 15.6 points to 7.1 points in transition. They have struggled mightily in this area so far this season but edged the Spurs 13-3 in this category. The Timberwolves took the Spurs’ mistakes and made them count by creating easy scores off of them. That’s what good teams do on a consistent basis.

An opportunistic defense helped the Timberwolves overcome getting beat on the glass. Despite their opponent winning the rebounding battle, the Wolves were able to get their first win of the season when they were outrebounded. That’s happened just six times this season but they were 0-5 coming into the contest.

Bring it to the bench

One of the biggest differences between last year’s team and this season’s team is the bench. Had Jimmy Butler had a 2-for-13 shooting night a season ago, the Wolves likely would lose because there was no help. This season is a different story.

The Wolves reserves scored 20 of their 29 points as a part of the team’s 39-point second quarter. There were several games last season when the bench didn’t hit the 10-point mark and now they’re scoring 20 in a single quarter. What a difference a year makes.

Nemanja Bjelica continued his strong play this season. The forward had 11 points, four rebounds, and two assists. Bjelica attacked from everywhere on the court, launching 3-pointers and attacking the basket. Seeing him earn 22 minutes was a step in the right direction. Bjelica had essentially been splitting time with Shabazz Muhammad but Muhammad has struggled again this season. Playing Bjelica over Muhammad seemed to be the wiser move and he did thrive in expanded time. Then again, Muhammad had an efficient nine-point night in 12 minutes, so who knows if this trend continues.

As a unit, the reserves played well together. They began the third with a 13-point lead and kept it to within seven points when the starters were subbed in. Defense is going to be an inherent limitation of this bench all season long. That’s no surprise. But the bench’s ability to keep the lead to a multi-possession game made the starters’ job much easier.

Wolves should learn from the Celtics

After making 9-of-44 combined 3-pointers in Golden State and Phoenix, the Wolves shot 50 percent in Utah. It seemed that the team might be regressing following a hot start that saw them rise as high as eighth in 3-point efficiency.

After again hitting the 50 percent mark by connecting on 9-of-18 3-pointers, Minnesota is back in the top-10. The Timberwolves are now ninth in 3-point efficiency but near the bottom in both makes (28th) and attempts (29th). Perhaps the team understands that they’re not the Warriors or the Rockets and their efficiency would suffer from more volume. That may be true based on their personnel but with the value of a 3-pointer being greater than a 2-pointer, it may still be worth it to attempt more.

Consider the Brad Stevens Boston Celtics. Those teams feature Marcus Smart, who is one of the worst shooters in NBA history. They’re currently 17th in 3-point efficiency but sixth in volume. This has been a trend for Stevens entire tenure in Boston.

  • 2016-’17: Third in 3-point attempts per game but 14th in 3-point percentage.
  • 2015-’16: Eleventh in 3-point attempts but 28th in 3-point percentage.
  • 2014-’15: Thirteenth in 3-point attempts and 27th in 3-point percentage.
  • 2013-’14: Eighteenth in 3-point attempts and 28th in 3-point percentage.

Would you look at that? A poor shooting 3-point team that still hoists them as if they’re one of the best shooting teams in the league. Under Stevens, they’ve never finished better than 14th in 3-point efficiency but have never been bottom-third in attempts. If you’re going to be a poor shooting team anyway, why not place a greater emphasis on taking more valuable shots? It’s paid off for the Celtics.

They’ve gone from 25 wins in 2014 to winning 40 or more games in each of the past three seasons. Of course, the Celtics have also had at least passable defenses — and the Timberwolves haven’t. But the point remains is that a team that has shot the 3-pointer so well should try taking more. They may make a lower percentage of them but that can be offset by making more and getting an extra point. In order for taking more 3-pointers to be a bad idea for the team, they would have to shoot extremely poorly.





wolves

Previous Story Zulgad: Reason to celebrate: Karl-Anthony Towns delivers on his birthday promise to beat Spurs Next Story Notebook: Concerned about the Timberwolves starters’ minutes? Look to the bench