“They’re a well-oiled machine.”
That’s what Jeff Teague said of the San Antonio Spurs at Wednesday afternoon’s practice, as he prepped for his first regular-season game with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He wasn’t the only one who felt that way; Jimmy Butler, Jamal Crawford and Tom Thibodeau all shared that sentiment at the very same shootaround.
The Spurs, who played without Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker, still beat the Timberwolves as if they never needed them at all. Their 107-99 win showcased exactly how the Spurs keep that machine running, no matter how many fix-ups they require.
Dejounte Murray filled in for the injured Tony Parker and shot 7-of-8 for 16 points. Many of those points came against Teague, who was never able to fully find himself on either end of the floor.
For Leonard, Kyle Anderson ended up starting, but it was newcomer Rudy Gay who played Leonard’s minute late. Gay had some big buckets for his new club, including a pair of late free throws that put the Spurs up 9, putting the game virtually out of reach.
“In the end, they did what they were supposed to do. We didn’t,” Butler said in the locker room after the game. “That’s a really good team over there; even though they’ve got two really good players out. They always find a way to win.”
In short, the Spurs were able to put together a string of buckets late, and didn’t care who made them. They looked like a team that had played together, in this system, in this exact situation, dozens of times before.
The Timberwolves looked just the opposite. Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns had some good alpha-dog moments, but were never able to rally the team as a whole to play as a cohesive unit. They looked unfamiliar to each other.
Still, the unfamiliarity was not a good enough reason to Thibodeau. No reason was.
“There’s gonna be an excuse every night if that’s gonna be the road that you go down,” Thibodeau said after the game. “But that’s not what we want to do.”
Thibodeau is right, too. It was obviously more than a lack of familiarity. Several players, simply, did not bring what was advertised. Butler, while excellent in the first half, did not do enough to assert himself in the second half. Teague looked out of sorts on both ends, and only got going offensively in the second half. In fact, he and Taj Gibson – who shot just 3-of-11 – didn’t earn their spot in the final few minutes of the game.
Instead, they rolled with Tyus Jones and Jamal Crawford, both of whom showed sparks on both ends of the floor. Jones was the only point guard to display any level of stability defensively, and Crawford – with help from Nemanja Bjelica, who played just 14 minutes – was the key initiator in a strong fourth quarter comeback.
This became a question mark for some, as neither Crawford nor Jones did anything offensively as the lead started to slip away. Teague, who did the majority of his scoring damage in the second half, still sat.
“It got to the point where you had to make a decision on it,” Thibodeau said. “Because they had played well, and put us in position to win, I just wanted to ride with that group a little bit longer. That was basically it.”
In terms of plus-minus, the one starter to not enter into the negative was Towns. The team’s defense was at its best when the bench unit was paired with KAT, who seemed to gel well with Nemanja Bjelica patrolling the paint.
That defense faltered to close the game, though, as offensive rebounds and inside looks became the norm for both Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge. At this point, the Wolves were going small, slotting Butler at the four.
The lone, constant bright spot for the Wolves was the play of Andrew Wiggins. Not only did he appear comfortable playing off Towns and Butler, he relished in it. He shot 4-of-6 from 3-point land, many of those shots coming off catch-and-shoot situations set up by Butler and Towns. He spent the third quarter, his best of the game, with mostly a bench unit and took control as the floor’s main option.
Still, Thibodeau said after the game that he thought he could have done much more defensively, just like the rest of the roster.
As the Wolves head home for their Minneapolis debut Friday against Ricky Rubio and the Utah Jazz, practice and repetition will become paramount. After one game, it’s clear that, while there is plenty of reason to be optimistic, this group isn’t going to figure itself out immediately.
It takes time to craft a well-oiled machine of his own, and Tom Thibodeau just received his parts to try to build one. Building one as flawless as the Spurs is the ideal; a team that can play the same productive style of basketball, no matter who is in the game. But right now, they aren’t close. Patience will be key in the coming month as these pieces start to assemble themselves.
For now, with the knowledge that Thibodeau won’t accept excuses, patiently working towards their goal is all they can do.