October 18, 2017, 11:16 am
The Minnesota Timberwolves are entering a new era. Loaded with a reshaped roster, a new uniform design and a remodeled arena, the team is looking to put the last 13 years behind them and begin their chase for the playoffs.
What better way to to start the journey than against the San Antonio Spurs, who haven’t missed the playoffs in 20 years and are yet again expected to compete at the top of the Western Conference?
This will be the first chance for many people to get a peak at Jimmy Butler with the new look Wolves after they spent the preseason playing a shortened schedule in China. For the Wolves, this game is a chance to make a statement to the rest of the NBA that they have arrived and look to shake things up in the West. The team coasted through training camp without significant injures or drama and should be locked and loaded, ready to go.
The Spurs, meanwhile, look to continue their run of dominance that began in the late 90’s. Many players have come and gone, but Gregg Popovich has remained and that has been enough to sustain success.
The Spurs had a relatively quiet offseason. They were the only team in the NBA that didn’t complete a trade, nor did they land a marquee player in free agency despite being involved in several rumors. As a result many are overlooking them in the standings, believing the end has come.
That would be a mistake. Adding Rudy Gay to the mix gives the Spurs another dimension of scoring, and allows them to play small, with Gay sliding to the four and LaMarcus Aldridge sliding to the five. Or they can play big and slide Gay to the three and Kawhi Leonard to the two-guard. How well Gay recovers from his Achilles injury will be a big story for the Spurs this season.
The Spurs also reached an extension with Aldridge to keep him through the 2020-21 season, despite rumors earlier this year that he was unhappy in his situation. Those rumors either proved false, or were ironed out over the offseason.
The key to the Spurs though is Kawhi Leonard, arguably the top two-way player in the league and a perennial MVP candidate. Unfortunately Leonard will be out of this game due to a right quad injury that has held him out all preseason and has apparently lingered since last season. This is a huge break for the Wolves, but should still be a great challenge to win on the road.
Tony Parker is also out from offseason surgery on his left quad.
Where to watch:
9:30 ET/8:30 CT on Fox Sports North & ESPN.
Anthony Brown (coaches decision) – OUT
Justin Patton (foot) – OUT
Kawhi Leonard (quad) – OUT
Tony Parker (quad) – OUT
Towns vs. Gasol
Gibson/Dieng vs. Aldridge
Butler vs. the field
With the Spurs’ top perimeter players out, they are likely to pound the ball inside and run their offense through their big men, especially LaMarcus Aldridge. This will be a good early test for the interior defense, and also for the help defenders. If the Wolves decide to bring some double teams, the help defense will have to cover the rotations, especially when Danny Green and Patty Mills are on the floor.
The Spurs are going to try to slow things down and play the half court game, but without their best player on both sides they could have a tough time consistently getting stops.
For the Wolves, they’ll look to take advantage of the mismatch on the perimeter and the matchup of Towns and Gasol. It’s possible the Spurs could send Aldridge on Towns, but that would risk putting their best player into foul trouble. In either scenario, Towns will see plenty of touches in the post and away from the basket.
On the perimeter, Butler and Teague will trade ball-handling duties and setting up the offense, but look for Butler to be in attack mode most of the game. Without Leonard in his way he’s a matchup nightmare. Expect the Spurs to throw a few different looks at Butler, likely starting with Danny Green but also Kyle Anderson, Manu Ginobili and perhaps Rudy Gay.
Both teams will compete until the end, but ultimately this game means more in the short term to the Wolves than it does to the Spurs. A win on the road against a perennial Western Conference Finals contender would be an excellent way to kick off the season for these young Wolves. For the Spurs, it’s status quo.