Minnesota Timberwolves 99, San Antonio Spurs 117
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.