Minnesota Timberwolves 99, San Antonio Spurs 117

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The storylines that defined tonight’s victory over the Timberwolves are self-evident. Manu Ginobili’s craftiness and intensity poured forth in torrential proportions. Richard Jefferson played with a swagger and physicality which, were this not the present, would appear anachronistic to the Duncan era. And, if Roger Mason had not already driven the final nail into the coffin of his early season shooting slump, tonight he firmly patted down the soft dirt atop its freshly dug grave.

But, as has become custom around here, I’m going to focus my recap on some minute element that a critical mass of our readers will find irrelevant at best, misleading at worst.

After the game, I asked Gregg Popovich about the pace at which the game was played. More specifically I said, “sometimes when you play a little bit more uptempo teams, you’ll try to slow it down it, work it inside. Tonight it seemed like y’all were a little bit more willing to play to their tempo. It worked out. Why did y’all choose to shoot a little earlier in the shot clock?”

Pop’s response: “Nothing you said is true.”

He continued, “Your premise is wrong. We don’t try to slow it down in the half court. We’ve made a special effort this year to run more than we ever have before.”

If you think Pop was giving me grief, well, it could have been worse; that is hardly the roughest answer he has ever given me. I consider the fact the he chose to clarify why he felt I was wrong as a bit of a compliment. I also use the word felt because I still contend that my premise was not incorrect, or at least not entirely so.

First, I’ll admit what is wrong with my question. When I said, “sometimes when you play a little bit more uptempo teams, you’ll try to slow it down it, work it inside.” Historically, that has been true, but this year it hasn’t. Interviewing Pop requires an attorney’s precision of language and I acknowledge that I gave the opposing counsel an easy out. But, in my defense, “nothing you said is true” is an overstatement, possibly even a vast one.

Simply put, the Spurs average 93.4 possessions per game, the sixth slowest pace in the league. On the other hand, the Timberwolves average 98.5 possessions per game, the third fastest pace in the league. How many possessions did tonight’s game have? 101. Ergo, it is completely reasonable to say we played to their pace. Yes, the Spurs have been more uptempo this season but only one team, the Warriors, averages over 100 possessions per game. No matter how you spin it, the Spurs played at an abnormally high tempo this evening.

Am I bringing this up just so I can air my disagreement with Pop? Of course not, although, now armed with a few stats, I may ask him about this at his next pre-game presser (where he is much more amenable to the kind of back-and-forth this question may require).

I’m bringing it up because I’m not convinced we came into tonight’s game intending to play at such a fast pace. Obviously we were more than willing to take advantage of the Timberwolves poor transition defense. But, in my opinion, the Wolves abysmal half-court defense played a substantial part.

On nearly every possession, the Wolves defenders were drifting off their man, offering reasonably open perimeter shots even before they had committed to any sort of help defense. The least bit of penetration caused defenders from every direction to collapse on the ball. During the second half there was one particular play in which Parker had only made it to the free throw line by the time all three perimeter defenders had abandoned their man, leaving Ginobili, Mason, and Jefferson wide open. I believe Parker hit Jefferson, who casually sank the 3, but at that point the target of his pass seemed arbitrary—three out of the five Spurs on the floor were prepared to catch and shoot, possibly with a short nap in between.

It’s getting late so I’ll cut to the chase: There’s no reason to run a patient, probing half-court offense when one or two rather mundane passes along the perimeter will do the trick. The Wolves offered up numerous open perimeter looks without hardly any penetration whatsoever. Working a clock down has no inherent value; typically it’s just not so easy to get such high quality looks within the first 10 seconds of a possession.

Now that I think of it, maybe Pop was right. Nothing I said was true. We haven’t been slowing it down; nor did we actively play to their pace. By shooting early in the shot clock we weren’t “picking it up,” we were just taking the open perimeter looks that were given to us, when they were offered.

  • Spursfanfromafar

    Graydon,

    You are setting up a nice post game feud with Gregg Popovich with many of your questions. Way to go :).

  • Jonathan

    Hate to admit it but I kinda thought that was a loaded question for pop. Went to the game and thought we played poor transition d for most of the first half and the guys tried to compensate by upping the tempo and it worked out for some entertaining basketball. Planned or unplanned it worked against the Timberwolves.

  • Rip Wiley

    What Pop says could well be true. Possessions per game is a really imprecise statistical intrument with which to assess basketball ideology. It has also played a big role in producing the “Fun ‘n gun Suns” vs. “Boring Spurs” media stereotypes. Spurs games tend to have fewer possessions because Spurs players are selected and coached to be patient and to work hard at both ends. On Offence, Spurs players try to recycle the ball until the opposing D breaks down enough for them to attempt the kind of shot they want, rather than impatiently settling for low-percentage looks (c.f. this year’s Bulls). On Defence, meanwhile, the Spurs players’ discipline tends to force opposing teams to use plenty of clock before they can get any kind of reasonable look (unlike, as you report, the T’wolves). Although together these reduce the number of possessions and shots in a game, neither reflects a dogmatic commitment to slowing the game down. 60 seconds is 60 seconds, whether 3 shots are taken in that time or 8. The difference is that the 10 players on the court tend all to be working harder when producing the lower number rather than the higher one.

    BTW, I wouldn’t go bothering Pop with any kind of 48-hours-after-the-event follow-up. It’s a little like being 10 minutes late with the perfect funny response to a pretty girl’s line in a bar – it will only really be important to you, and making the effort to re-open the issue after time has passed will probably cause awkwardness. Only, in this case, it’s also as if the girl is your company’s biggest client. Is it really worth it? (I think Wayne Vore’s recent post over at PtR seems to set some pretty good ground-rules here.)

  • GFoyle

    Last night was the most fun I’ve had watching the Spurs in this season so far.

  • kb

    good job Spurs…..

  • lvmainman

    Manuuuuuuuu… man those passes were awesome. Touch pass to Jefferson for dunk, pick and roll Duncan dunk, pick and roll reach around bounce pass to McDyess dunk, over shoulder half court pass to Hill didn’t need a dribble layup, and behind back to Blair. Whew. Talk about 31 different flavors.

    Glad to see Spurs push the ball after turnovers and defensive rebounds. Easier way to get layups and Jefferson involved.

    Thursday will be a test against a playoff team with a superstar in the Heat. Time for Spurs to step up and show if they’re for real.

  • Martin

    I am so happy that I had the chance to watch the game last night…usually when I watch the spurs live on tv, they lose…

    But yesterday it was Manu’s show….I went to bed with a big smile!!

  • SpursfanSteve

    I didnt get to watch the game, but watched the play by play on espn. Something i was impressed with: third quarter, blair picked up his 4th foul, but Pop left him in the game. He immediately got i think 2 boards, drew a loose ball foul, and drew two shooting fouls. Since i couldnt see how he actually did it, i’m not sure if he picked up the aggressiveness, or just played smarter or got lucky, but he never picked up his fifth. His numbers werent phenomenal, but i was impressed he was able to pull all that off, especially being a rookie. It would have been easy for him to shy away and try to avoid getting his fifth foul, but just that series of plays made it look like he got even more aggressive. Hopefully Pop has just taken the leash off and said “go play”.

  • DieHardSpur

    What can I say… I am really impressed with the way everyone played tonight. This has to be one of the most complete games we have played all year. Manu has to be one of the craftiest passers in the league. I love leaving Tim on the bench for the 4th qtr. It gives him the rest he needs as well as some play for our other bigs… Good game all the way around.

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  • Jesse Blanchard

    It was a blast seeing Ginobili actually be a difference maker. Even at a reduced capacity, Manu is key because his playmaking abilities allows Parker to concentrate more on being aggressive.

    And so far as pace. Well a lot of it is on Ginobili. His early season gambles on defense have put the Spurs defense in bad position more often than we’ve seen in the past. But I’m not sure if it was because lack of conditioning/rust/injuries or if it was just his new teammates overreacting to his gambling.

    But last night Manu was a pest. And as much as we miss the 40-point Manu, this is all we need for him to be: a pest. He created chaos for the Timberwolves offense, and even when he wasn’t getting steals he was forcing their pace and passes–making life uncomfortable. Then throw in his rebounds and ability to immediately ignite a transition opportunity right after those rebounds and we have a Spurs team that can suddenly get up and down the court.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Graydon Gordian

    Spursfanfromafar,

    It’s actually pretty hilarious. I swear I have got a thoughtful, thorough answer to 90% of my pregame questions, and then I always ask something stupid (or at least stupid enough for him to dodge) after the game.

    He was actually in a pretty good mood about the whole thing though. If you watch the Spurs.com post-game interview, he actually smiles at me after giving me hell. Normally if he doesn’t like my question that is the opposite of his response (even after a win).

    Rip Wiley,

    I probably won’t ask him about it, I was just kidding. Although at the pre-game pressers I have had chances to ask him some good questions about the previous game which he gladly answered. I always wait and see what the mood at the presser is before I choose what to ask.

  • Tree Frog

    I love Pop’s directness and you are right about the open perimeter looks.

    One question: what’s with the “we” pronoun used when talking about the Spurs? You aren’t a part of the team. When actually talking to a team member, you shifted to “you”.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Graydon Gordian

    Tree Frog,

    That’s a great question. In my capacities here at 48MoH I don’t consider myself as performing a traditional (i.e. objective) journalistic role. I am first and foremost a fan and I write about the the Spurs because I love them. So as a fan, I feel comfortable saying “we.”

    Yes, I am not a member of the organization, but fans are very emotionally invested and, via ticket sales, tax dollars and other means, financially invested. For me the most important of those is tax dollars. Cities help fund the arenas in which the teams play. We the people have the right to feel a deeper association with the team than, say, some company we merely patronize.

    That being said, I won’t be disrespectful of the access the team has given me. When I am at the games I conduct myself professionally and feign that reportorial passivity and distance- even though it does not exist in my heart.

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  • Dr. Love

    Fun game to watch. It’s also fun watching the Globetrotters whomp the Generals. I’m still waiting for a statement win against a playoff team…..

  • SpurredOn

    Alwasy enjoy a win where everyone in a SPurs uniform scored a basket. Even better is TD playing 26 minutes and resting the entire 4th quarter. This happened a number of occasions last season with Kobe and those saved minutes paid off in June. Hope the same happens for Duncan.

    As for Pop, I wonder if he just didn’t want to admit that the quicker pace and shot selection was due to Minnesota being so poor at transition defense and rotations. No need to insult the opponent.

  • junierizzle

    That was a fun game to watch. It was great seeing Manu be Manu. Especially after the last few inconsistent weeks.

    It looks like they are turning the corner.
    They are 7 games over .500, the 5th seed, and only the Lakers and Mavs have fewer losses.
    I don’t see why they can’t play the same way against the Heat. If they do then they’ll have a good quality win against a playoff team. I think that is the last thing the Spurs need to be confident.

    And to all those that say “its just the Twolves and they cant beat good teams” Look at the Lakers, when they play “good teams” they get steam rolled.

  • DieHardSpur

    Graydon,

    Tree Frog is just trying to find something to nit-pick. I refer to the Spurs as “My Spurs” and “My Boys” all the time, so I know where you are coming from. Great article as always; I would love to be in your position to meet and talk with the guys after the games. -Jealous

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