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It wasn't easy and it wasn't pretty, but the Clippers defense held the Wolves under 36 percent from the field and won their third straight game without Chris Paul.
The Clippers are fortunate that the Timberwolves are not a very good team right now, because they didn't play well enough Thursday night to beat a very good team. It was nonetheless more than enough against Minnesota. With Chris Paul missing his third consecutive game and Cinderella starting point guard Eric Bledsoe experiencing something of a pumpkin moment, the Clippers still managed to lead from four minutes into the game until the final buzzer. And although they let the Timberwolves hang around and hang around -- despite establishing a double digit lead early in the second quarter the Wolves were able to get as close as four points on eight different occasions in the middle quarters and within three a couple of times -- to their credit, the Clippers never let it get dicier than that. When the Wolves got close, the Clippers invariably scored a bucket to stretch the lead back out, and not only did the Wolves never tie the game after the first quarter, they never even had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead.
You can credit the Clippers defense with holding the Timberwolves under 36 percent from the field, but honestly I'm more inclined to blame the Wolves offense. Nikola Pekovic was 1-8, and yes the Clippers worked hard on him and challenged shots, but he also missed several shots he usually makes. Ricky Rubio had perhaps the worst missed bunny in the history of the NBA, entirely missing the rim on a completely uncontested layup. It was that type of night for the Wolves, who with the exceptions of Luke Ridnour and Andrei Kirilenko, were completely worthless shooting the ball.
Bledsoe, who had filled in for Paul so admirably in wins in Memphis and Houston, tonight had more fouls (three) and turnovers (four) than points (two) or assists (two). He did at least have four steals, but after picking up an early second foul and leaving the game, he never seemed to find his rhythm. When Bledsoe left the game after about three minutes of basketball, the Clippers faced the prospect of playing the rest of the quarter with no true point guard, as Paul and Chauncey Billups sat on the bench in suits and Bledsoe sat with fouls.
But again, it is a testament to the team's depth that it didn't much matter. Between Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill and Lamar Odom the Clippers managed to get enough ball handlers on the floor, even without a true point.
I predicted in the preview that Minnesota would have trouble with Blake Griffin and Crawford, and indeed, they led the Clippers in scoring with 20 and 22 respectively. Griffin was not hitting his perimeter shot, making just one basket from outside the paint, but when he went to the basket he was unstoppable. Crawford was just Crawford, taking a variety of tough shots, missing a lot, but making enough to make a difference.
Knowing as we do that he'll very likely be out of the rotation soon, it was interesting that Ronny Turiaf had his best game as a Clipper, scoring four baskets in four minutes in the second quarter to stretch the L.A. lead to 11 points. He finished with a season-high 11 on 5-5 shooting, as well as the accompanying season high in "Ronny twirls".
Although he scored just two points, Odom was the real star of the night for the Clippers. He led the team with 12 rebounds and six assists. Odom is already a huge part of the Clippers success, and it certainly seems like he's still getting better. It's pretty scary to think of all the things he could be doing for this team in the second half of the season.
The game was a disaster for the Wolves in more ways than one. Not only did they lose their fifth straight while posting their second worst field goal percentage of the season, by the end they were playing with nine healthy players, as starting center Pekovic and rookie Alexey Shved both left with injuries, joining four other key Wolves not available. Shved's sprained ankle looked nasty and I'm guessing he'll miss some time; it's hard to know about Pekovic's bruised hip.
Although it was no work of art, it's still a win for the Clippers, and a road win at that, giving the Clippers the best road win in the entire league. it's a luxury to be able to take your time getting Chris Paul back on the floor, to play it safe with the superstar and take no risks, while also sweeping a three game road trip against three theoretically good teams. We'll see if Paul plays against the Wizards in STAPLES on Saturday, but even if he's not back then I feel fairly certain that he'll be back soon after that.
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