SAN ANTONIO – In the Timberwolves’ loss at Dallas on Sunday, with the Wolves lethargic from the start, coach Tom Thibodeau went up and down his roster looking for a combination that would click. He went 11 deep, a rarity for him this season.
Nothing seemed to work.
On Tuesday in San Antonio, Thibodeau kept his rotation tight, playing only eight players.
In both cases — in what has been a common theme this season — the bench was a problem.
In Dallas every reserve player was a minus, with Shabazz Muhammad (minus-20), Nemanja Bjelica (minus-19) and Kris Dunn (minus-17) leading the way.
Against the Spurs, it was a lineup including several reserves that faltered at the end of the third quarter.
The Wolves took a 90-83 lead with 1 minute, 40 seconds left in the third quarter when Karl-Anthony Towns hit a three-pointer. With Dunn at point guard, and Bjelica and Muhammad on the floor with Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the Wolves were outscored 9-0 to end the quarter.
The Wolves never led again, eventually losing 122-114.
Thibodeau put Ricky Rubio back at the point to start the fourth quarter, but by that time the Spurs had the momentum.
Thibodeau was asked Monday what standard he uses to judge whether his bench has been effective in a game.
“It’s consistency,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve had moments where we’ve been very good. I think Brandon [Rush] has given us good minutes. Tyus [Jones] has given us good minutes. Bjelica has been pretty solid. Cole [Aldridge] has been pretty solid. We just need consistency.”
During the Wolves’ recent three-game winning streak, their reserves outscored their counterparts in two of those games and by a combined 79-77. When the bench can hold its own, the Wolves are in pretty good shape.
But the bench was outscored 29-10 in Dallas and 37-21 in San Antonio.
“I know we have to go out there and play with some energy,” Muhammad said. “We have to play harder, score the ball.”
Thibodeau gave Bjelica a lot of minutes with the starters in the fourth quarter Tuesday. Depending on who the Wolves are playing, Thibodeau likes adding a three-point threat such as Bjelica to the mix.
“It’s just the spacing,” Thibodeau said.
As the younger players continue to develop, they saw a role model in Spurs star Kawhi Leonard on Tuesday. Thibodeau, before and after the game, couldn’t say enough good things about Leonard.
“To me, All-Stars, MVPs, you have to look at what they do for their team in winning,” Thibodeau said. “There are people, they can get stats, but they don’t contribute to winning. [Leonard] does everything to help his team win.”
Leonard scored 34 points on 12-for-17 shooting, with five assists. In the decisive second half, in which the Spurs overcame a four-point halftime deficit to outscore the Wolves 55-43, he scored 17 points on 5-for-7 shooting, made both his three-pointers and all five of his free throws with three assists.
After spending the night covering Leonard, Wiggins agreed with his coach.
“He plays on both sides of the court,” Wiggins said. “A lot of good players only play on offense. But they’re not great defenders. But he’s the best offensive player on that team, and he’s the best defensive player on that team. That says a lot.”