SAN ANTONIO -- Only five days after they won by 25 points at Target Center, the Spurs beat the Wolves again. Only this time, they persevered with an unlikely protagonist, 7-3 Serbian and rookie center Boban Marjanovic.
After Duncan was scratched from the lineup because of a sore knee and Popovich was ejected late in the first half, Marjanovic truly stood above everybody else during a third-quarter reversal that turned the game the Spurs’ way.
Trailing by as few as four points in the final minutes, the Wolves lost their fourth consecutive game. The Wolves, owner of the NBA’s best free-throw shooting percentage, missed 10 of 24 free throws and big men Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng got into third-quarter foul trouble.
“That might be as perfect a team, between them and Golden State,” Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell said. “Those two teams, every time you make a mistake they just punish you. And we didn’t make a lot of mistakes. You got to play almost the perfect basketball game, especially in this building and we came close.”
Popovich was ejected late in the first half for arguing too vociferously an official’s decision. Before his night ended early, Popovich was asked about his first impressions when Marjanovic arrived at training camp sight unseen by Popovich.
“He’s tall,” Popovich said.
On Monday, Marjanovic was more than that. He was pivotal in the Spurs’ third-quarter turnaround, when he grabbed rebounds and made short hook shots over the crowd.
Friendly with the Wolves’ Nikola Pekovic, Marjanovic scored nine of his 17 points in the third quarter, as the Spurs turned a seven-point deficit in that quarter into an 85-76 advantage by early in the fourth.
“He’s not a big stiff,” said Spurs forward David West, who started in Duncan’s place. “People love his size and sort of think he’s a big stiff, but Boban is a helluva player.”
On Wednesday, the Spurs led by as many as 13 points in the first quarter and went on to beat the Wolves for their seventh consecutive victory and 16th in 18 games.
Monday, it was the Wolves who led big early, starting with leads of 10-0 and 18-6 before the Spurs played themselves back into the game. In the end, the Wolves might have handed the Spurs their first home loss since Cleveland on March 12 if they hadn’t missed those 10 free throws, six of them by young star Andrew Wiggins, who was 2-for-8.
“Oh yeah,” Wiggins said of the missed free throws, “and it was mostly on me.”
Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio called the game at the foul line “one of those days” and called himself encouraged by his team’s improvement from Wednesday’s loss.
“That means we’re learning but we have to start winning,” Rubio said. “It’s not about learning. It’s about winning now. Missing free throws — me, Wigs — that’s not us, but we have to learn how to close out games, especially at the free-throw line. You cannot miss at the end of the game.”