In an early season brimming with impressive victories authored by the San Antonio Spurs, this one might have been the most impressive one yet. The Spurs led by as many as 19 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves late in the third quarter. The Timberwolves rallied in the fourth quarter but the good guys were able to do just enough to hold on. The 107-98 victory improved San Antonio’s record to 5-2.
On paper, the Spurs had no business winning this game. They were missing Devin Vassell (lingering knee soreness), Josh Richardson (lower back tightness), Jeremy Sochan (illness, non-COVID-19), Isaiah Roby (illness, unknown) and Joshua Primo (chronic exposure, terminal). During the game, Blake Wesley hurt his knee, which meant San Antonio was down to nine players in uniform — with three of those players being centers.
Despite being short-handed, the Spurs scratched, clawed and remained dedicated to team-first basketball. The result was another astonishing win against a much more talented team.
Spurs vs. Timberwolves – Final Grades
This had to have been Johnson’s best all-around game of the season. I thought his defense was excellent; he was much more locked in on that end than usual. Offensively, his primary weapon remains his three-point bombs but he did a lot more than that tonight. His fearless driving to the hoop paid repeated dividends. However, his most extraordinary feat was taking over the backup point guard duties after Wesley went down. For the first time, Johnson was running the show — and he did really well. His improvements over the summer in terms of his passing and reading defenses have been monumental. He’s gone from a head-down kamikaze driver to a smart basketball player who sees it all. Poetically, Johnson sealed the win for the Spurs against the Timberwolves with a three-pointer with less than a minute remaining.
Poeltl was really good and once again outplayed Rudy Gobert. This was clearly his best defensive game of the season. His limbs were consistently in the passing lanes and he was guarding the rim with gusto. His rebounding was stout and his physicality never took a play off. Offensively, Poeltl could have done a bit more — especially with the Spurs being so outgunned — but he did enough to aid the attack in a positive manner. His passing was a plus and his constant movement and constant screens were opening up lanes for others.
Jones was only 2-for-12 from the field but he played better than that field goal percentage would suggest. He hit a key three-pointer in the fourth period and he kept the ball hopping with his speed, vision and unselfishness. He’s had some ball-handling issues late in games this season but that wasn’t an issue tonight. Jones’ defense was rugged and he hustled end line to end line.
Langford’s numbers don’t jump off the page but this was a breakout game for the 23-year-old. His individual defense was spectacular. It was the best perimeter defense played by any player on the team this season. His quickness, length, anticipation and self-discipline on that end was a special combination. Langford also had a few highlight-reel plays as a help defender. Offensively, Langford can still dial up his aggression level a few notches but he’s obviously a smart player who understands the game at a high level. All in all, Langford’s fluidity and basketball IQ give him a chance to find a long-term spot on the team. If the coaching staff can coax out more fire and more assertiveness, I’m beginning to get excited of what he could possibly become.
Honestly, it wasn’t pretty. When Bates-Diop wasn’t passing up open shots, he was sometimes fumbling away easy opportunities. But despite the chaotic play, the Spurs would have been dead in the water without Bates-Diop’s production. He scored 18 points in 23 minutes and there were stretches where his cutting ability away from the ball and his pterodactylian length were the only things keeping San Antonio’s collective head above water. Defensively, he was solid and his effort on the glass was commendable.
This is McDermott at his best. Defensively, while he’s stiffer than two day old bread, he was efforting on each possession. Obviously, though, offense is where McDermott was making a huge difference. His speed coming off screens and the tight angles he took resulted in open shots even when Minnesota knew the Spurs were running a play for him. McDermott’s off the ball movement was exquisite. Whether it was backdoor drives away from the ball or simply rotating to the open spot on the weakside, he was almost always in the right spot at the right time.
The good: Collins was a constant threat on the offensive end. His jumper is silky right now and his high-low passing is great. He’s finishing through contact and he’s doing better about holding his ground in the paint. With Sochan and Roby out, Collins played power forward for stretches for the first time this season and he didn’t skip a beat. The bad: Fouling continues to be an issue for Collins. He’s reaching too much and not doing his work early enough. The short-handed Spurs needed Collins to stay out of foul trouble — but that didn’t happen.
Branham saw his first NBA action tonight. The rookie was a little bit nervous, especially after his first few shots didn’t fall, but I thought he did fine. He only hit 1-of-7 shots but, despite the misses, we got a glimpse at the maturity of his offensive repertoire. His catch-and-shoot jumper has a quick trigger and he can create space off the bounce to get to his shot. Passing-wise, Branham was really good. He spotted the open player quickly and his passes were on target. His defense wasn’t good (alright, his defense was actually really bad, to be forthright) but we knew that’d be his weakness at the start of his professional basketball career.
Welsey was playing really well before he went down with a knee injury after an awkward collision in the lane. This kid is just as fearless as fearless gets. He competes and isn’t shy about utilizing his breathtaking quickness. Let’s hope Wesley avoided a major injury and is back soon.
Dieng looked slower than usual but it’s difficult to complain when he got four rebounds in four minutes.
What more can be said about how well Pop is coaching this season? He just beat a team with title hopes with half of his roster tied behind his back. And even at full strength, many NBA pundits were saying the Spurs had the least talented roster in the league. Yes, the players deserve a ton of credit for buying in and playing well … but these early wins clearly have Pop’s fingerprints all over them.