Give-and-Go Preview: Zach Harper stops by to talk Spurs vs. Wolves in Mexico City

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The San Antonio Spurs and the Minnesota Timberwolves are set to tip off from Mexico City in about three hours. So to get a rundown on all things Wolves, Zach Harper, from the Internet (Read his stuff at CBS Sports and A Wolf Among Wolves, please. You don’t have a choice.), stopped by the old website to give us an idea of exactly what’s going on way up there in the cold.

Update: Tiago Splitter is not going to play tonight due to tightness in his left calf. He experienced some discomfort in the second half on Monday against the Atlanta Hawks, and it has lingered since then. He is questionable for the team’s game on Saturday against the Indiana Pacers, when they’d really need him. Ya know, as much as a team can REALLY need somebody in the 20th game of the season.

Matthew Tynan: So the Spurs are on the road to play the T’Wolves at home … in Mexico City … roughly 47,000 miles away from Minnesota. This is weird.

Zach Harper: I have no idea why this schedule is supposed to make any sense. I generally don’t get annoyed at the schedule because I’m sure it’s a daunting task to undertake. But I just don’t see how the Wolves have two road games in San Antonio this year and then the one “home” game they have against the Spurs is in Mexico City.

MT: I’m sorry. I know the Spurs aren’t the “sexiest” in terms of mainstream NBA fandom. But for the writer types like yourself, it’s got to be lame. No Popovich for you, Zach! (Well, during the regular season at least.)

ZH: I love Pop! I got Pop’d last season in Minnesota! In the first matchup in Minneapolis last season, I asked Popovich a question about adjusting their attack when missing their key guards and he gave me a phenomenal answer.

Then the second time they rolled into town, I was feeling pretty good about myself and my knowledge because Pop had taken the time to answer my question thoughtfully. I asked him something about defending the corner three and his response was, “Do you think if I knew that, I’d tell you?” There was silence as all of the other reporters got nervous. I looked at Pop and said, “What if I asked nicely?” He smirked a bit and then the scrum was pretty much over.I need these moments in my life!

MT: There’s a certain life-affirming feeling that comes with getting Pop’d. It’s awful, invigorating, embarrassing and a source of pride all at once. I remember my first time (yes, I’m aware what that sounds like). I’m sure my face was bright red as it was happening. But once he walked out, I was basically congratulated. I had been initiated. I was one of them.

But it was similar with me: I got a great answer the first time I ever asked a question, then I got cocky. Huge, huge mistake.

ZH: I learned you do NOT ask him defensive questions. It’s like the holy grail of coach speak.

MT: Yeah, there’s sort of a list of no-no’s with that guy. You learn as you go. But back to this Mexico City situation: How much is Glen Taylor being paid for this? And what is the currency? Will he be paid in pesos, given the location of the business event? Will the league forcefully hand out Timberwolves jerseys to those in attendance to cover up all the Ginobili jerseys? Because the only way this would be less of a home game for Minnesota is if it was being played in Argentina or France. Or Australia. Or New Hampshire (Matt Bonner). You get the point. San Antonio is basically North Mexico.

ZH: Ahhhh, those old New Hampshire showdowns! Those were the good ole days. That’s the funny thing about this Mexico City situation. The only way to put his team at this disadvantage for the season by getting one fewer home game and all of that travel would be if they were giving Glen Taylor a significant bump from the revenue of a normal home game. I’m not sure what the situation actually is financially but Rick Adelman has been complaining about it for a good week, and rightfully so.

Does Taylor just not care and because of his role as the head of the BOG, he’s all about the good of the game? Has this become a strict money play for him? Not saying the Wolves would win this game if it were at home but let’s say the Wolves miss out on the playoffs by one game and this is a loss Wednesday night. What if that spirals into more Kevin Love frustration (although he’s in a good mentality right now) and it starts back the idea of him leaving because this team can’t get to the postseason.Is that money grab really worth all this?

I guess they could avoid this by just winning the game, but still!

MT: Well, sure. But regardless of outcome, it’s weird. Adelman has every right to be upset. Sure, globalizing the game is an initiative the NBA has clearly pushed, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of a team’s on-court success during the league’s regular season. I don’t get it. ESPECIALLY given that these two teams play each other three times this season, with the other two games being in Texas. And as competitive as the Western Conference is, it very well may come down to one game, and the Spurs have had some tough times against the Wolves (when they’re healthy) in Minnesota.

ZH: Plus, it’s snowing in Minnesota right now! It’s beautiful! Who wouldn’t want to be here tonight?

MT: Sean Elliott. He hates cold weather.

ZH: See?! Even more reason!

MT: Hahah! OK, so about the game: The Timberwolves were SUPPOSED to be their usually effective offensive selves, but so far this season they’ve been better on the defensive end. Ricky Rubio is likely one of the most underrated defenders in the league, Corey Brewer has always been disruptive, and now they’ve got senor Mbah a Moute, but where is this really coming from? They weren’t supposed to be a top-10 defense.

ZH: The funny thing about them is they’ve been bad defensively the past five games and yet they’re still a top-8 defense in the league. The way they’ve done it is they’re great at forcing turnovers. Between Rubio’s thievery and Corey Brewer flashing into passing lanes, they’ve been great at disrupting offenses.

Love and Pekovic have actually been solid defensively. Love’s positioning has been pretty good and Pek’s PnR defense is legitimately good. The team is actually significantly better defensively with Love on the floor than when he’s not on. They also don’t foul a whole lot. They usually dominate the free throw battle because of that and some favorable calls that go their way.I keep waiting for it to break but it’s held up so far.

MT: Well then this should be interesting tonight. The Spurs allow the fewest free throws in the league, but they also take the fewest. Which is pretty enjoyable. There’s very little stoppage in Spurs game, which makes for consistently fast-paced games. It’s really quite nice. Damn officials, always trying to steal the show and whatnot.

I was certianly looking forward to a defensive matchup entirely comprised of frontcourt anchors that don’t jump, but Tiago Splitter is apparently out with tightness in his calf … oh wait, that means Boris Diaw will likely start. So we’re still on track. But maybe this isn’t the worst thing for the Spurs anyway, with the way Love spreads the floor.

ZH: It’s kind of fascinating, right? Duncan can still block shots because of timing and length but there shouldn’t be more than maybe 5 combined blocks in this game. This is exactly a chess match with how the defenses will be set up except it feels sometimes like the Wolves are playing Risk with their defense and they’re going after the wrong countries.

MT: So they’re the guy who’s adamant about controlling Asia, but puts way too many guys in Kamchatka to protect against those pesky Alaskans, while the folks in Africa are quietly building a massive army in Egypt and the overachiever in Europe just turned in for extra armies?

ZH: Yeah, except they’ll get a wild hair to just go dominate Canada because it sounds like a great way to maximize their pancake intake and carb load for the big wars. Sometimes they can luck into world domination but you’re having two great generals go to battle with guys that understand the way to execute the plan and guys that running out into the open screaming, “LEEEEEEROOOOOYYYYYYY JENKINS!”

MT: God I love that game. Can I bring Risk to Summer League next year?

ZH: And miss Kendall Marshall’s play?! (Please bring Risk to Summer League)

MT: Only if Ethan plays. And only if he regales us with stories of the Prussian Incursion from those Jameson commercials. He’s bound to have an inside scoop on the attacks that never were.

ZH: He’ll never stop talking about it.

MT: OK… so back to basketball…I guess. Zach Lowe recently wrote about Ricky Rubio’s shooting struggles. And while it was painful to see anything even close to negative being written about the most adorable point guard in the league (that face, man), it’s definitely a thing. Where are you on this subject?

ZHI wrote about the possibility of him leading a top-5 offense in the league right before the season started and basically came to the conclusion that if he can get to the 40 percent mark or close to it, the Wolves would probably be elite on offense. While everybody focuses on his need to become a good jump shooter, it really is all about finishing around the rim with him.

His footwork around the hoop is typically pretty bad and that’s probably due to him being unsure about going up and missing layups. When he takes a direct path to the hoop, he’s been pretty decent at it. But too often he worries about contact or trying to get a foul call and just doesn’t focus enough on the shot.If he can become a 55 percent finisher at the rim (roughly 10% higher than what he’s done in his career) then I think he solves a lot of issues with his scoring.

MT: Look at Tony Parker. He was not a good shooter for such a long period of time. It eventually came, obviously, and having Chip Engelland on the bench is nice. But his footwork around the basket, combined with his quickness, allowed him to flourish early in his career. So that’s something, I guess. And Rubio really is so damn young, still.

ZH: Yeah and this was the first summer in which Rubio concentrated in the weight room in his life. He’s never done it before. Perhaps it’s a matter of him getting stronger and feeling confident in that strength. Whatever it is, he needs to change something in his preparation.

MT: Is there a recent trend you’d like to see the Wolves carry over into tonight against the Spurs? And on the other hand, is there one you’d like to see end tonight?

ZH: I’d like to see the trend of the bench not scoring much end. Most people want to pin it on JJ Barea but really he’s the only guy capable of scoring off the bench and the opponents know that. There’s not a lot of options so he has to be a bowling ball heading into the lane and it doesn’t end well. Until Chase Budinger comes back to space the floor, I’d like to see the Wolves find a way to get Barea space when operating the second unit.

I’m very interested to see how they defend the perimeter. Wolves have been aggressive (Rubio and Brewer) or apathetic (Martin) on the perimeter this year and you might not be able to do either against the Spurs. You have to stay solid and find a way to recover quickly and run teams off the 3-point line. If they can force the Spurs into the middle of the floor but not give up the paint (been a big problem on the road and this is a damn road game), they’ll have a great shot at a win.

MT: The Spurs starting wings, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, have really been struggling together. But Marco Belinelli and Manu Ginobili have been unbelievable when on the court together. So this might get interesting tonight. From what you’ve seen from the Spurs this season, what are your biggest takeaways? In regard to some of these struggles, I’m very much of the “it’s November” belief, and, oh yeah, they’re 15-3. So they have a bit of wiggle room. I don’t expect Kawhi to shoot 22 percent from three this season, but that’s just me.

ZH: My biggest takeaway is just how focused this team is. I don’t know if it’s a Game 6 thing (sorry!) or what but I don’t remember them being this good, this focused so early in the season in a long time. It doesn’t feel like they’re pacing themselves like normal; it just feels like they’ve decided to kick ass every night and get homecourt advantage in the Finals. It’s really impressive.

MT: Yeah, the outcomes have been different in the sense they’ve had some serious blowouts, but the philosophy has been as it always has. Parker is the only guy playing more than 30 minutes a night. The only one. That’s wild to me, though it probably shouldn’t be with this team.

Ok last thing: do you have a feeling about tonight one way or the other? No Tiago for San Antonio, which could affect the rebounding battle, which is hugely important for the Spurs. And Splitter has been so key for the defense, both alongside Duncan and when Timmy is on the bench.

ZH: I’m expecting a Spurs victory but I think it will be a good game. Kevin Love and Kevin Martin need to have a nice game together again to get some of that scoring chemistry to be more consistent. I just don’t see how the Wolves’ defense handles the 3-point shooting of the Spurs. They’ve been killed on above-the-break 3-pointers this season when they’re on the road.

I think the Spurs win by 7 and we’re treated to a really fun game.

MT: So no home-court advantage?

ZH: Did Crunch make the trip? If he did, this is a Wolves victory!

MT: I haven’t seen a report either way on that one. I guess we’ll have to see.

Thanks a lot, Zach. We’ll see you down the road perhaps. Hey, if we get a Spurs – Wolves first round, you’ll get all the Popovich you can handle!

ZH: I need to be Pop’d! Wait… that came out wrong.

MT: Nope. It came out beautifully. Everyone should be so lucky to get a little more Pop-ing in their lives.