SAN ANTONIO – Timberwolves three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler predicted Wednesday’s season opener might not be pretty, but it could begin in a small way to reveal his team’s nature.
He’s 2-0 in predictions while the Wolves are 0-1 in the standings during this barely-begun season after a 107-99 loss to the Spurs at AT&T Center.
Debuting three new starters and six new faces on the opening-night lineup, the Wolves trailed by as many 13 points in the third quarter and battled back, but couldn’t hold a one-point lead with five minutes remaining.
They were outscored 16-5 in those final five minutes, outdone by a Spurs team missing injured stars Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker but still remains all about continuity, even in retirement. Former Spurs greats David Robinson and Tim Duncan attended the game.
The Wolves, meanwhile, often looked like a team that has only played three preseason games together.
The loss was the Wolves’ 12th consecutive to the Spurs, dating to April 2014.
“There’s going to be an excuse every night if that’s the road you want to go down,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said afterward. “But that’s not what we want to do. We have to take a look at the film, try to learn from it and be better next time. We just have to do better.”
While Spurs coached Gregg Popovich turned to his most veteran players late in the game, Thibodeau mixed and matched up lineups, pairing starters Karl-Anthony Towns and Butler for much or all of the fourth quarter with reserves Tyus Jones, Nemanja Bjelica and Jamal Crawford, all of whom helped the Wolves back from that 13-point, third-quarter deficit.
Starters Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson sat the entire fourth quarter while Towns, Jones and Crawford played on. Thibodeau said he wanted to “ride” with the group that help the Wolves get back in the game.
Owner of five NBA championship rings, Popovich called upon veterans Manu Ginobili, LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, Patty Mills and even newcomer Rudy Gay down the stretch after the Wolves had used a 16-5 run and Butler’s capping jumper to turn an 87-77 deficit after three quarters into that 92-91 lead with five minutes left.
“I wanted experienced people,” Popovich said. “People who will make fewer mistakes because they know what we’re doing.”
The Wolves, comparatively, barely know each other, let alone know collectively what they’re doing yet.
Asked if it felt often Wednesday like a team that hasn’t played much together, Butler said, “You can say that. It’s not an excuse. We’ve got guys out there who know how to play basketball. The coaches, the organization, everybody expects us to win. We can’t use that we haven’t played together as an excuse.”
Before the game, Butler predicted his team’s big debut might not be so pretty, saying, “I’m not going to say this is going to be the most pure, beautiful basketball you’ve ever seen.”
He also said he didn’t have any questions about his new team, but added, “I just want to know if we’re going to be the toughest team night in and night out.”
The Wolves played neither beautiful basketball nor were tough enough against the Spurs, using the length and savvy of Aldridge and Gasol to block 11 shots, including eight in the first half alone.
The Spurs also made five of their eight three-pointers to build an 11-point lead near the end of the first quarter.
“We did things that are not winning basketball,” Wolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We made winning plays to get back in the game and then we reverted to our old ways, not making the winning plays. It cost us in the end.”
Aldridge led San Antonio with a 25-point, 10-rebound double-double. The Wolves’ Andrew Wiggins scored 12 of his game-high 26 points in the third quarter, while Towns had a double-double of his own with 18 points and 12 rebounds.
Butler had 12 points on 5-for-12 shooting, four rebounds and three assists in his Wolves debut.
“A lot of ups and downs,” Butler said. “We put ourselves in position to win. At the end, they did what they were supposed to do and we didn’t. ‘‘That’s a really good team, even though two of their really good players [were] out. They always find a way to win.”