Down yet one more starter to bring the total to four, the Timberwolves on Friday night fielded a lineup of 10 available men who had played 297 more minutes in their combined careers than San Antonio big man Tim Duncan has played all by himself.
Maybe that’s one simple way to explain the Wolves’ 121-92 loss to the Spurs at Target Center. Esteemed San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich offered another.
“Obviously, it wasn’t a fair fight,” he said. “It’s hard to compete at this level when you don’t have all your guys out there. They’re having a tough time with that right now.”
The Wolves added guard Kevin Martin and his newly fractured right wrist to their growing list of injured or excused that also included starters Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Thaddeus Young.
Wolves coach Flip Saunders was left with 10 men standing who had played 44,208 combined career minutes entering Friday. Duncan alone had played 43,911.
Saunders tried to fit the puzzle pieces remained, inserting veteran Corey Brewer into the starting lineup while keeping Mo Williams, Gorgui Dieng, Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad there where they were. He patched together a rotation alternating three healthy big men — Dieng, Anthony Bennett and Robbie Hummel — and nothing he tried matched Ol’ Man Duncan’s presence or dissuaded guard Tony Parker’s persistent drives to the basket.
Duncan had nine points and 10 rebounds, helping create a 53-34 advantage on the boards. Parker was aimed early at those career-high 55 points he scored at Target Center in November 2008 until he played just eight minutes after halftime, none in the fourth quarter.
By then, the Spurs led by as many as 34 points. Parker scored 28 points in 25 minutes.
All told, the defending NBA champions delivered the Wolves’ youngsters a lesson in system and unselfishness, pulling away with a 31-9 run that ended the first half and started the second after the Wolves offense sputtered when it transitioned from starting point guard Williams to rookie reserve Zach LaVine.
“They’ve got three guys down there, Hall of Fame players right now,” Saunders said. “Who knows what’s going to happen with [Kawhi] Leonard but with Duncan, [Manu] Ginobili and Parker, they are Hall of Fame guys and they did what they have to do. Some teams play down to their opponents. That’s why those guys are so good. They don’t play down to their opponents. They’re going to make their opponents play up to the level they’re playing.”
The Wolves had no realistic chance Friday, but they found some solace in the performances of No. 1 overall picks Wiggins and Bennett.
Bennett scored a career-high 20 points off the bench. “He was all over the place, making shots, dunking the ball,” Wiggins said. “I think he played great.”
Wiggins again produced a third-quarter flurry, scoring nine of his 14 points in a fleeting span that suggested what could be someday. Wiggins overcame Leonard’s physical defense early in the game and responded when the Wolves started running plays for him in the third quarter.
Now Saunders wants him to play with that kind of aggressiveness when the team isn’t running plays for him, and with better endurance.
“He has to be able to play at that level for a long period of time,” Saunders said. “His next step is he has to find his way over the course of the game to generate that himself. To be a good team, you have to find your spots, find your shots and find your aggressiveness throughout the game.”
It’d help if the Wolves found more healthy players, too.
“They did everything they could in spite of that,” Popovich said. “They tried to play the right way. It wasn’t a fair fight.”