Spurs at Timberwolves Give and Go Preview

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Normally, we’d be getting ahead of ourselves by calling a January game against the Minnesota Timberwolves a must-win game.  Sunday night’s game against the T-Wolves… is a normal game. It’s not a must-win. I apologize if I got your hopes up. That said, the Spurs could really use a classy, complete performance against Minnesota.

The Spurs have been trending downward a bit in the last three games, going 1-2 during that stretch and turning the ball over 56 times. A complete domination of the Kevin Love-less Wolves could go a long way towards getting the Spurs back on track.

To preview the game, friend of 48MoH Zach Harper, blogger at CBSSports.com, joined me to preview the action and give us some background on Minnesota’s season thus far.

Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes of Hell: Let’s talk Spurs-Wolves.

Zach Harper, Eye on Basketball: Let’s do it.

AM: I’m surprised they haven’t played yet this season, they usually get one or two out of the way before Christmas.

ZH: Yeah, I feel like they usually get one in October. Or November.

AM: Traditionally this is a tough matchup for the Spurs, no matter how Minnesota is playing at the time. I think it has to do with the size that the Timberwolves throw at San Antonio. I feel like Pek had his first big game in the NBA against the Spurs.

ZH: Yeah, that sounds right. That seems to be the model against the Spurs. Have good size and chase the shooters. Then find a way to trick Manu into not being aggressive and hope Tony Parker doesn’t kill you. I don’t know that it works but the Wolves get away with it. Maybe the Spurs haven’t taken them as seriously as they might need to since KG left.

AM: For a team as mental as the Spurs, I would hope that’s not the case. Either way, a tough matchup. With Kevin Love out, is it on Derrick Williams to fill the void?

ZH: It’s on Derrick Williams and Dante Cunningham. They’re the two-headed “monster” at the PF right now. Dante starts the game and gives them the pick-and-pop midrange jumper he’s so good at. When Derrick comes in, they need him to rebound and knock down 3s. The fact that he’s their best 3-point shooter this year is terrifying. Not for opponents, just for Wolves fans.

AM: I assume with Love’s injury, the Derrick Williams trade talk is pretty much gone.

ZH: It’s still there a little bit. Some people really want a Derrick for JJ Redick deal, but I don’t know if that’s even enough to get him. That’s the kind of skepticism that makes me want to keep Derrick all the more. His trade value is still low, but I believe in him being a good player long-term. Even if he’s the 6th Man for this team, I’m good with that. Other people want more out of the 2nd pick, but I really think where he was picked shouldn’t matter, considering how weak that draft looks. And that’s not to say I wouldn’t want Redick on this team. He’s a great team guy and the shooter they need. I just think that’s selling low on Williams.

AM: Right. Would Minnesota be considered an offensive or defensive ballclub at this point? Or are they a balanced one?

ZH: Very much a defensive ballclub, which is weird. Coming into the season, we all wondered if they’d be able to score enough to outlast their terrible defense. It’s been the exact opposite. They’re the 11th best defense in the league right now, but they’d been top 10 for most of this season. The problem is their offense sucks, mostly due to injuries and historically bad 3-point shooting.

AM: Why are they a good defensive team? How are they keeping opponents from scoring?

ZH: They just seem to get in the way. It sounds basic but it’s really just fundamental basketball. They try to seal off the lane and challenge shots. Their rotations have been mostly pretty good. Andrei Kirilenko takes the best scorer on the court and the rest of the team just builds a wall. And they’re a good rebounding team so they end possessions well.

AM: That’s one thing I don’t think people realize about defense. A defender’s job isn’t necessarily to stop the offensive player from scoring, it’s the goal but not really their job. The job is to make it as hard as possible for the offensive player to score. If they still score, so be it.

ZH: Yeah, it’s the whole idea that you can’t stop someone; you can only hope to contain them. I’d say the Wolves do a really good job of containing most opponents. It’s harder for them with the injuries piling up because you have guys playing minutes they shouldn’t be playing. But they do a good job of containing.

AM: To the 3-point shooting. Why are the Wolves so bad?

ZH: I’ve been trying to figure that out. I’ve got two big posts on the Wolves’ 3-point shooting, breaking down their open, contested, and well-defended looks. Both posts have showed that they just miss shots they should be making. And I’ve tried to come up with this open 3 to defended 3 ratio that is like a shooting version of assist to turnover ratio. The Wolves are now taking more defended 3s per game than open 3s. That wasn’t the case a month ago. So not only are they not making shots but they’re trending toward taking worse shots. The absence of Chase Budinger and a healthy Kevin Love have really affected this.

AM: I heard the argument on The Basketball Jones the other day that the Wolves almost might not want to make the playoffs this year because it wouldn’t feel like progression. Love has been out so much and Ricky Rubio is still working his way back. Making the playoffs might not feel like complete development. Are the Wolves good enough to make the playoffs this season and, if so, would you want them to?

ZH: Without injuries, this is definitely a playoff team. They’ve “survived” this long with all of the significant injuries. If they could stay afloat, wait for certain guys to get healthy, and make a push into the playoffs, I would rather that than another lottery. There has been development with this team and it’s significant. I don’t know if this says more about the roster or the history of this organization, but this is the most talented roster (when healthy) the Wolves have ever had 1 through 15. And I think making the playoffs and getting swept in the first round wouldn’t look like progress to most people, but it would take a lot of pressure off of key components of this organization.

AM: What’s the plan with Ricky right now? He’s not starting and playing about 20 minutes per game if I remember right. Are they simply working him back slowly to avoid re-injury?

ZH: Yeah, I think so. They were working him pretty hard in practice and he got back spasms, so they’ve eased up a little bit but allowed him to play in his first back-to-back this week. He’ll be pushed to about 24 minutes per night pretty soon and they’ll just keep working him back. Honestly, with the injuries to this team, I think it’s taken a lot of pressure off of getting him back quicker. The season is potentially lost so there is no rush for him to return. They can keep building him back up at a reasonable pace.

AM: What’s the mood surrounding Love’s re-injury? Is there any finger-pointing and blame about rushing him back too fast

ZH: There are some murmurs of that, but mostly I think it just allowed everyone to realize this team isn’t better off without him. That was an ACTUAL thought Wolves fans had because of a 5-4 start this year. I think people just feel like the Wolves are cursed, which is weird because not all Wolves fans are 6 years old anymore. Injuries happen and they happen a lot. I think mostly, people just want to see this team healthy so we can see what they’re capable of doing.

AM: People actually thought this team was better off without Love?

ZH: Yes. They were furious with Love after the Woj article because they don’t understand that side of the industry like many of us do. They figured Love was just ripping the team and didn’t realize he kind of got duped. It caused a big backlash because the Wolves were good to start without him. It was very paranoid and weird.

AM: I guess Spurs fans went through something slightly similar a couple of seasons ago when people were lobbying for the RC Buford and Co. to trade Tony Parker because everyone thought George Hill could handle point guard duties. And there was the whole we’re not a contender anymore thing from Tony.

ZH: But… Tony Parker is awesome. I’m a huge George Hill supporter but the difference between him and Parker is pretty vast, isn’t it?

AM: It is. Hill is a solid player, but he can’t create and wreak havoc like Parker. But people were convinced that Hill was almost as good as Tony and the Spurs needed to trade Parker for another big. I’m sure the Spurs explored the possibility, but ultimately made the right call by not pulling the trigger. And instead dealing Hill for Kawhi Leonard, which has been fun.

ZH: Oh man. What a great trade for both sides. I love what Hill has done with the Pacers and I’m definitely a huge Kawhi Leonard fan.

AM: I’m of the belief that Kawhi Leonard can be the second best player on a title team at his peak. I see his ceiling as a Shawn Marion that can create off the dribble and play in the pick-and-roll more. I don’t think he’s going to be “a star,” but I think he’ll be a very good player for a long time.

ZH: Yeah, it probably depends on who that first guy is, but I think he’s definitely going to be a really good third option on a good team. If that’s worst-case scenario, that’s really incredible.

AM: Totally.

ZH: Will you ask Tony Parker to take it easy on the Wolves?

AM: Tough to say. On the one hand, he’s been scoring well the last few games, so I could see him having a slower night. Likewise, Duncan has struggled, so he could be primed for a bigger game. On the other hand, the team as a whole has been rough and could use a breakout game. I’m predicting 74 points. For Parker. Or 22. Either or. No in between.

ZH: That sounds about right.

AM: So the last thing I need from you is a random prediction. Something that has nothing to do with the final score.

ZH: I feel like this short road trip could be the straw that sends the camel to a specialist to find out he needs surgery and is out 6-to-8 weeks. I think a bad loss is coming with the Wolves. They’re 0-2 on this road trip and both losses were worse than the scores let on. I’ll go Spurs 114, Wolves 98.

AM: I just said nothing about the final score.

ZH: But that’s the thing. I had to give a final score that looks bad but will actually be worse. The Wolves lost by 22 to the Thunder and it wasn’t that close. They lost to the Hornets last night and the second half felt like a varsity vs JV scrimmage… TO THE HORNETS! The Spurs are going to win big but it will be bigger. That’s the prediction. The smoke and mirrors will be in full effect with the Wolves. The score is random because it won’t tell the story.

AM: Okay, I supposed that’s an acceptable response. How many settlements will Pek pillage in the second half?

ZH: As many as he wants. By the way, look for his new tattoo. It’s a roaring bear. He’s still wearing a sleeve over it during games because it’s fresh but look at it in the locker room. His reason for it was “everybody is afraid of bears.”

AM: Also: “I killed it with my bare hands.”

ZH: That is what everybody expected.