SAN ANTONIO – Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio’s 11-point, 13-rebound, 10-assist performance Saturday night was his fifth career triple-double and his first in two years.
But it was no antidote for a 97-90 overtime loss to the Spurs, a loss in which his team lost a 16-point, second-quarter lead and ultimately the game, not to mention a precious chance to move within two games of Denver in pursuit of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.
The Wolves scored 29 points in the second quarter but only 28 in the second half, and they were outscored 21-13 in the fourth quarter and 14-7 in overtime in losing to San Antonio for a 10th consecutive time.
League MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard outscored them all by himself in the fourth quarter alone 14-13 on his way to a 34-point, 10-rebound, six-steal, five-assist night that neither of the Wolves’ two young stars, Karl-Anthony Towns or Andrew Wiggins, could match.
When the Spurs ratcheted their defense as a team with the NBA’s second-best record can, they forced the Wolves into too many turnovers, too few timely defensive rebounds and three shot-clock violations just in the fourth quarter. The Wolves didn’t help themselves any, either, by missing three fourth-quarter free throws.
When it was over, the Wolves flew home 2-2 from a four-game road trip that began in Texas a week earlier with a loss in Houston and ended there, too, after they had won at Sacramento and Utah in between.
Afterward, Rubio was asked if that fifth career triple-double meant anything to him given the context that the Nuggets lost at home and the Wolves led the Spurs until just 2:45 remained in regulation time.
“No, if it doesn’t come with the win,” Rubio said. “Of course, the numbers are there, but we’re chasing for a playoff. Denver lost today, a great opportunity for us getting a great trip, three out of four. Instead, we’re going home three games behind with only 20 games left.”
Rubio’s 13 rebounds tied a career high, and he reached double-digit assists for the eighth time in his past 11 games. His four turnovers, though, included a pass or two too careless when the Spurs applied the pressure.
Relentless, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau called the Spurs before Saturday’s game, and that’s why San Antonio has won five NBA titles through the years and this season is 48-13, second only to Golden State.
The two-time defending NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard helped end Wiggins’ franchise-best streak of consecutive 20-point games at 19 games after he was hounded into a 6-for-24 shooting night and scored 17 points.
“He’s a good two-way player,” Wiggins said, “but it was more so their team defense. You get past him and there are two big guys at the rim.”
Veteran big man LaMarcus Aldridge stuck himself on Towns in the second half and limited him to four points after Towns’ own streak of consecutive 20-point games hit 17 by halftime. Afterward, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called Aldridge’s defense on Towns both “outstanding” and “exceptional.”
“That’s not what cost us the game,” Towns said. “The biggest thing was our defense, putbacks, second-chance points. We never should have given it to them. It hurts. … There are a lot of things we could have done better. That includes myself.”
Meanwhile, the Spurs simply played on, even after they trailed 39-23 in the second quarter, even after they missed five of their first six free throws and made just 15 of 24 all night.
“We don’t give in, I guess,” Popovich said. “We are realizing more and more that these games are 48 [minutes] and that you don’t have to panic. You just keep on playing.”
And therein should be the lesson learned, again, for a Wolves team that missed free throws themselves — crucial ones, it turns out. Towns, Rubio and Wiggins each missed one in a fourth quarter that ended with the score tied 83-83.
“In the end, it’s make or miss,” Thibodeau said. “You make your free throws, you probably win the game.”
Often reluctant to do so with his own team, Popovich praised the Wolves.
“I thought Minnesota was great,” Popovich said. “Thibs has done a great job with those guys. They’re young, young, young, and I actually thought they executed better in transition than we did. For young kids, they’ve really accepted what he’s trying to get across to them.”