Spurs drop Wolves


In recent years, perhaps no entity that does not kill and maim civilians or assault the environment has seemed so loathsome to me as the San Antonio Spurs. It's not that I begrudge them their collective talents or deny their (frankly undeniable) success. One can't help but admire Tim Duncan's accomplished, though powerfully unthrilling game (his economy of motion and refined offensive skills were always things I was jealous for on Kevin Garnett's behalf), or be astonished by Tony Parker's quickness or Manu Ginobili's flailing limbs. And there is no doubt that over the last five years or so they have consistently played "better" team basketball than anyone in the league.

Lots of folks have called the Spurs boring, but that's not exactly my beef. Indeed, they've made a brutal art out of the fourth quarter comeback, which might sound exciting until you account for those countless comebacks' monotonous predictability. It's more that their sheer effectiveness seems to be their only reason for being. If the Spurs can be said to have a "style" at all ("style" as understood as the expressive qualities of a team's game, plus maybe its collective personality), that style is simple winning itself. Taking their cue from Greg Popovich, their world-weary coach, and Duncan's droopy, affect-less demeanor, the Spurs play the game as if were a slightly tedious task to be accomplished on the way to victory, rather than an opportunity for, like, joy or creativity. The principle emotion they do project is one of aggrieved blamelessness, as if they alone, despite their chilly ruthlessness, are innocent of ambition. Mind you, it requires an even temper to survive the NBA's grueling, attritional marathon of a season with one's emotional faculties intact. But even the Spurs' greatest victories--especially when calmly throttling passionate, creative teams like the Suns and Hornets--have felt, to me, greyly inevitable. Expert, professional, but empty.

Dark Lords

All that said, the Spurs did manage to beat the Wolves 129-125 in two overtimes, but they were shadows of their former selves. Without the injured Ginobili, San Antonio was significantly less dynamic than normal; their trademark smooth, decisive ball movement and balanced scoring only materialized occasionally. For much of the game, the Spurs' offense revolved almost exclusively around a two-man game between Duncan and Parker; the duo took 62 of the team's 97 shots. And their traditionally stultifying late game defense was largely absent as they allowed the Wolves to shoot 47% in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Luckily for the Spurs, Parker chose this particular game to become completely unstoppable. He scored 55 points (42 in regulation) on 22-36 shooting, mostly off of pick and rolls with Duncan. Parker is devastating when he gets in the paint but is a comparatively weak shooter. And so, as do most teams, the Wolves usually sent Parker's defender under those picks, giving Parker room to shoot, and hopefully preventing him from getting near the basket. In the past few years, though, Parker's shooting has dramatically improved; although Brewer fought manfully on Wednesday, Parker basically never missed. On the few occasions that Brewer did fight over screens and pressure the ball, Parker simply made use of his spectacular quickness and scored easily at the basket. The Wolves' only other option would have been to send Duncan's defender (usually Kevin Love or Al Jefferson) to pressure Parker while Brewer worked his way around Duncan's screen. But this would have meant giving up a passing lane to Duncan and, most likely, a close look at the rim for one of the best big men in the history of the game, so the Wolves chose to stick with single coverage. These were probably all shrewd, least-of-three-evils choices by Wolves' coach Randy Wittman but Parker abused Minnesota's defense all the same.

Smile, Please

For their part, coming off a dispiriting 88-85 loss to the "Oklahoma City Thunder" (I still can't make myself believe that they are a real basketball team), the Wolves played their best game of the year by far. The Spurs began the game with a kind of leisurely, exhibition game attitude--accentuated by Popovich's tie-less, bearded and khaki'd Donald Sutherland-as-stoner-English-prof look--and the Wolves seemed happy to respond in kind. But as the Spurs became more intense and Parker heated up, the Wolves actually raised their level of play for the first time all season. The combination of Kevin Love and Al Jefferson did a pretty good defensive job on Tim Duncan, holding him under 50% shooting. And the offense was considerably smoother and more efficient than in their first three games. Were it not for some awful turnovers--including a total giveaway by Randy Foye on an inbounds play with two seconds left in regulation--and the Spurs customary late-game offensive rebounding, the Wolves were in great position to win.

Speaking of Randy Foye, much of that offensive improvement seemed to stem from Sebastian Telfair's return from suspension. Now, Foye's game was much improved from his 3-14 and 0-10 (nice!) stinkers against Dallas and "Oklahoma City," respectively--he hit two crucial late jumpers and made some fine passes off drives and pick and rolls--but the offense seemed to flow better with Bassie at the point. I'm pretty sure that Telfair actually is significantly quicker that Foye but the effect is greatly amplified by the fact that the former is just so much more decisive and aggressive with the ball. He attacked the Spurs' defense with his hyper-kinetic but supple ballhandling and made some gorgeous passes in traffic. Its hard (nearly impossible, actually) to know, from just a single game, one player's effect on a team but Telfair seemed to spur the Wolves to a more urgent, confident offensive performance.