No such luck.
“No haymaker,” Wolves coach Flip Saunders said afterward, “right from beginning to end.”
Back then at Target Center, the Spurs won by 29 points on a night when four Wolves starters did not play and Popovich concluded about the home team that night, “They tried to play the right way. It wasn’t a fair fight.”
Four months later, the Wolves played with seven men out, including injured starters Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Garnett — and Saunders concluded the fight was even less fair than it had been before Thanksgiving.
This time, they were outdone by the Spurs’ famed ball movement — to the tune of 38 assists — and San Antonio’s 33-13 third quarter when Kawhi Leonard played like the guy who was NBA Finals’ MVP last spring.
The Spurs forced six of their 13 steals in that quarter, when Leonard had seven points, six rebounds, one assist, one blocked shot and three of those steals while also locking down Wolves rookie Andrew Wiggins.
“You mean Kawhi Leonard?” Popovich asked when asked about the Spurs’ turned-up defense and abundant steals.
Yes, that’s the guy.
His team trailing 60-50 after two quarters, Saunders theorized halftime sapped his team’s adrenaline and emphasized its fatigue with the roster nearly cut in half at the end of a four-game winless trip and during a season in which the Wolves now have won just 14 times in 65 games.
Saunders noted Leonard “took the game over” and “mauled” Wiggins, limiting him to two third-quarter points on 1-for-4 shooting while Leonard made three of five shots at the other end.
“Kawhi Leonard had a first half he probably didn’t want to have,” Wolves guard Kevin Martin said, “and I’m sure Pop let him know about it. He came out and changed the whole game.”
Usually a young man of few words, Wiggins stayed true to his nature Sunday when asked about Leonard’s impact on the game, saying “He asserted himself in certain situations.”
Saunders started rookie Zach LaVine for Rubio at point guard and played him 42 minutes out of necessity. He started Gorgui Dieng in Pekovic’s spot and opted for newly acquired Justin Hamilton over Adreian Payne at Garnett’s power-forward spot, saying he wanted Hamilton’s 7-foot size and Payne’s versatility off the bench against a Spurs team that starts 6-11 big men Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter beside each other.
“It’s easy to judge guys when your team is playing good and their energy is up,” Saunders said. “But how do you play the fourth game in six nights on the road when you’re tired and playing against a good team?”
The one player Saunders singled out in an outmanned situation such as last night’s: Little-used veteran Chase Budinger because, according to Saunders, “he passed, he cut. That’s how you have to play against a good team. Our young guys held the ball and the ball stuck. When you play a good team, you won’t have any efficiency doing that.”
On a night when all seemed lost, Saunders said his team could find value in the night’s work if they heed their opponent’s ways.
“The value is looking at the players we played and how they [the Spurs] played and how you’re trying to play like them,” Saunders said. “That’s the biggest thing.”