SAN ANTONIO – Five days after they got themselves a real education, the Timberwolves go back to school Monday against the Spurs in San Antonio, where the five-time NBA champions are unbeaten this season at 17-0.
On Wednesday, the Spurs won by 25 points at Target Center with a demonstration in selflessness and one sequence in which they passed the ball eight times during a 24-second possession before they ended it with a layup.
“Compared to what they’ve done to some other teams, I wouldn’t say a clinic,” Wolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell said.
But it wasn’t far off.
The Spurs have remade themselves, ushering Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili toward their final seasons with a new foundation anchored by free-agent signee LaMarcus Aldridge last summer and Kawhi Leonard, whom they’ve nurtured from a middling 2011 first-round pick into a legitimate league MVP candidate.
If it’s possible, the Spurs quietly have compiled a 26-6 record, at least in comparison to Golden State’s showy 24-0 season start and 28-1 record. They trail the Warriors by just 3.5 games with 50 games still to play.
When Mitchell watches the Spurs, he envisions his young team’s future.
“When I look at teams and how people do things, we’re trying to put together a program not to be like them but in our own way mirror some of the things they’ve done,” Mitchell said. “They’ve been a great basketball team and organization for a long, long time, and there’s a reason why. We want a certain player on our team. We want a certain attitude on our team. And we want to start a culture where certain things are expected of you about how we want to play.”
The Spurs have been doing so since Gregg Popovich was promoted to coach in 1996 and Duncan was drafted first overall in 1997.
“We’re 29, 30 games into our process,” Mitchell said.
Duncan is in his 19th NBA season and just keeps going. Parker, Ginóbili, David West and Boris Diaw all have played 13 seasons or more. Leonard is the only one of the Spurs’ main regulars who was born in the 1990s and has become the Spurs’ leading scorer, best player and probably the league’s best two-way player.
“He’s terrific, I don’t know how else to say it,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “It’s quite a luxury for those guys to have role players named Duncan, Ginóbili and Parker when you’ve got Aldridge and Kawhi as your cornerstones. They’re doing something special down there for sure.”
Meanwhile, Wolves cornerstones Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine all are 20 years old.
“You look out there and they’ve got three, four Hall of Famers on their team,” Mitchell said after Wednesday’s 108-83 loss. “I mean, do I need to say anything else? What else is there to say?”
Mitchell noted he had Wiggins, Towns, LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng on the floor together against the Spurs at one point Wednesday.
“That’s about as big as we can go, and we still looked like little midgets against those guys,” Mitchell said. “Those guys have just filled out. They’ve got their grown-man weight. In two years when Andrew and Zach and our guys get their grown-man weight, we’ll be OK.”
Until then, Mitchell hopes his players will study the Spurs, even as they are competing against them.
“I told our guys when you play a team like that, you’ve got to come away learning how that basketball moves,” Mitchell said. “So no matter how great you are individually, you’re not quicker than that basketball. If nothing else, we learn how that basketball has to move and how to set up our teammates and go from a good shot to a better shot. We’ll be OK. That’s something we’ll continue to work on, and we’ll get there.”