Clippers-Wolves preview: Five in a row?

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers are without question on a roll, having dispatched the Nuggets last night in a wire-to-wire win, their fourth straight by an average of 18 points per game. They'll look to keep things rolling against the Timberwolves tonight.

2013/2014 NBA Regular Season
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vs
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19-9

13-14
December 22nd, 2013, 6:30 PM
STAPLES Center
Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Ricky Rubio
Jamal Crawford SG Kevin Martin
Jared Dudley SF Corey Brewer
Blake Griffin PF Kevin Love
DeAndre Jordan C Nikola Pekovic
Advanced Stats
97.96 (8th of 30) Pace 100.45 (2nd of 30)
106.5 (4th of 30) ORtg 103.3 (12th of 30)
100.00 (8th of 30) DRtg 102.2 (14th of 30)
Injuries/Other
J.J. Redick (wrist) out
Chase Budinger (meniscus surgery) out
Reggie Bullock (ankle) out
Ronny Turiaf (broke elbow) out
Maalik Wayns (meniscus surgery) out

The Back Story: (Clippers lead series 2-0)

-- 11/11/13 in Los Angeles | Clippers 109, Wolves 107 | Recap | Box Score

-- 11/20/13 in Minneapolis | Clippers 102, Wolves 98 | Recap | Box Score

The Big Picture:

The Clippers have won a season-high four games in a row -- something they've done on two other occasions this season -- and will try to push that to new territory tonight. More than just the four wins though, it's been the way the Clippers have been winning. All four wins have come by double digits, they've come by an average of 18 points per game, two have been wire-to-wire (including the emphatic win over Denver yesterday) and the Clippers have not trailed in the second half during the winning streak. The good times are bound to end at some point -- but not yet. At home against a good but not great Timberwolves team seems like a great time for a fifth straight. That the Clippers have won the last two while Chris Paul has scored a two game total of 22 points on 7-21 shooting is further testament to how things are suddenly falling into place. Earlier in the season, the Clippers were more or less directly dependent on great games from Paul to get wins, yet they've had back-to-back laughers with Paul missing shots. Griffin is in a great place right now and usually enjoys his matchups with Kevin Love, so look for him to try to "impose his will" (h/t to Charles Barkley) tonight. Jamal Crawford is coming off a great game of 27 points against the Nuggets.

The Antagonist:

The Timberwolves really looked to me like the most likely playoff party crasher at the start of the season. If there were six near locks for the post season in the West (Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Warriors and Grizzlies) the next two playoff spots were wide open, and the Wolves, with Love and Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic healthy and together for pretty much the first time ever, seemed poised to be one of those two. And that's exactly how the season started. But more than most years, things haven't gone precisely to plan. The good news is that some of those locks don't look as solid at this point, but Memphis seeming more like a candidate for tanking at this point, while the Andre Iguodala injury (among other things) has kept the Warriors from building a resume. On the other hand, the Mavericks and Nuggets and especially the Suns and Blazers have all been surprisingly good. All of which leaves Minnesota in trouble right now -- Love has been nothing short of magnificent and the starters have played really well, yet they're below .500 and sitting in the 11th spot in the crazy deep west, where 13 teams have a real shot at eight playoff spots (or more to the point, eight teams seem to be fighting for three playoff sports). The Wolves bench and shooting have let them down this season -- they are 25th in the league in effective field goal percentage, and they really don't have a single reserve who has played well.

The Subplots

  • The Questionable Blogger. For the third meeting between the Clippers and the Wolves, you submitted questions, and Eric of the Timberwolves blog Canis Hoopus answered them. Please stop by Canis Hoopus to read my answers to that community's questions as well.
  • Comparison of key metrics. The Timberwolves are above average on offense and on defense -- but not by much. The Clippers on the other hand continue to improve on both sides of the ball with their current winning streak. They now have the fifth best net rating (the difference between offensive rating and defensive rating) in the league having passed Portland.
  • First two meetings. The Clippers may be 2-0 against the Wolves this season but those wins were anything but easy. In the first meeting in L.A. the Wolves came back late and Love had an easy tap in to tie the game and force overtime at the final buzzer, but rushed the shot and missed. In the game in Minneapolis, Chris Paul had to put the team on his back and carry them to a win in the fourth quarter. Hopefully it will be a little more straightforward tonight.
  • Barnes back. Matt Barnes returned to the Clippers lineup for the first time in over a month yesterday, and in a way it felt like the first time he's played this season. The month he took off waiting for his torn retina to heal also allowed his various leg and other ailments to get better, and he looked almost like himself on the court for the first time this season. He made three three pointers -- which was a totally unexpected bonus from a rusty player -- and brought the energy that he provided all last season. His relentless cutting to the basket seems simple enough, but not everyone has the knack for when and how to do it. Barnes does, and it makes a difference. It will be interesting to see when the Clippers have their next close game who is on the floor on the wings -- I'm guessing it will be Crawford and Barnes, at least until Redick returns.
  • Wolves losing the close ones. The Wolves have the ninth best scoring differential in the league at +3.15, but only the 13th best record at 13-14, which puts them a game and a half out of eighth in the Western Conference. That's because they can't seem to win the close games -- as their two losses by a total of six points against the Clippers would attest. These things usually balance out over time -- unless there's something about the team that makes it tough to win close ones. In the Wolves' case, when you're best scorers are interior players, it can be difficult to get great shots late in close games, since it's easier for the defense to deny the ball to Kevin Love than it is to deny the ball to Chris Paul for instance.
  • Wolves bench. When these teams played earlier in the season, it seemed like both teams had great starting lineups, but neither of them had much bench to rely on. Since then, the Clippers bench has begun to play a bit better and to provide more support (even though top bench scorer Jamal Crawford has recently joined the starting team). The Wolves on the other hand remain a disaster when their starters for out. Their leading scorer off the bench is J.J. Barea at 7.9 points per game; from there it goes to Dante Cunningham, round five. Barea is shooting 38%; Alexey Shved is shooting 26%. The trade of Derrick Williams for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute gave them a versatile defender, but it certainly didn't help them with their lack of offensive fire power in the second unit.
  • Defending Paul. Rubio is a good defender, using his length and intelligence well to get into passing lanes and get steals. But Paul is a tough cover for him to stay in front of. How effectively Rubio can defend Paul will be a key to this game. The first game may have turned in the third quarter when Paul used a few tricks (including one that the NBA said went too far) to get Rubio into foul trouble and to get himself to the line. It should be noted that at halftime of that game, the Clippers pretty clearly felt like the Wolves had been getting away with some pushing and grabbing, so the third quarter might have just been evening things out a bit. If Adelman opts for lots of Barea again, Paul will eat the little guy up, but Clipper-killer J.J. will get plenty back on the other end.
  • Griffin on Love. At this point Love's three point shooting is no secret, and Griffin knows he's got to stay close out there. Even so, he sometimes gets caught cheating off or just plain napping.. Love is clever, but he's not going to blow by guys, so Griffin needs to focus on him, stay close, and forget about help defense. Love can still hit a step back or a fadeaway -- the guy's good -- but you have to at least take away his open, spot up looks.
  • Love on Griffin. Actually, that's one big difference between Love and Griffin right now. Love will guard the less threatening DeAndre Jordan, Adelman preferring to place Pekovic on Griffin. Love's defense ranges from OK to disinterested to abysmal at times. On the plays where he winds up on Griffin, the Clippers will go right at him and make him work on that end.
  • Back-to-back. For the second time this season, the Wolves are playing the Clippers in L.A. directly after having played the Lakers -- the rare example of back-to-back road games with no travel. You'd think it would happen a lot with both teams playing in STAPLES Center, but really it doesn't. The Wolves are arguably the more rested team for this one -- they played Friday while the Clippers played yesterday. Whether Kevin Love spent too much time partying with his L.A. peeps between games remains to be seen.
  • Back in blue. The Clippers wear their light blue, short sleeve Pajaniforms for Sunday home games, so this will be the third time this season. However, this will be the first time they'll be wearing the baby blues with the sun down, since the first two times were for day games -- I hope they don't get too sleepy, but if they do they'll be all ready for bed. The Clippers are 1-1 in the "Back In Blue" unis, playing their most dominant game of the season against the Bulls, and then losing to the Pacers in a game in which they played well, but did not shoot well.
  • Going small. One gets the impression that Doc Rivers would like to go small these days. Stephen Jackson has played well (at least on defense) when he's played, but he didn't get into the game until garbage time yesterday with the return of Barnes. The game before that, Jackson played quite a bit of four against the Pelicans and Antawn Jamison was a DNP. When Love or Pekovich sits, the Wolves bring in the likes of Dante Cunningham and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute -- and the Clippers could easily go small against those guys. I don't know if that's what Rivers will do, but keep an eye on the minutes distribution between Jackson and Jamison.
  • Cherry picking. NBA offenses and defenses get more sophisticated all the time, but sometimes the best play is the one you learned on the playground -- leak out on the fast break and get an easy layup, aka cherry picking. The Wolves signed Corey Brewer this summer and he is one of the best in the NBA at releasing early and getting behind the defense -- he's fast and athletic and he'll run all game. Combine that with Love's vaunted outlet passes, and the Wolves are getting several easy baskets every game. Doc Rivers has been harping on transition defense -- that defense will be put to the test in this one. There's really no reason to let Brewer beat you if you know it's coming. One of the perimeter players has to be back on defense, period.
  • UCLA. By my count, there are currently 11 UCLA Bruins playing in the NBA. Six of them will be in this game, three each for the two teams. You know about Barnes, Collison and Hollins for the Clippers -- when the Wolves traded Derrick Williams for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute last month, he joined Kevin Love and Shabazz Muhammed. Collison, Mbah a Moute and Love were all teammates during Love's one season ni Westwood.
  • Connections. Ryan Hollins spent a season in Minnesota during Love's second year in the league. Ronny Turiaf, who is currently injured for Minnesota, played with the Clippers last season. Kevin Love, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Darren Collison were teammates at UCLA.
  • Get the Minnesota perspective at Canis Hoopus.
  • Shakespearean reference:

    A Comedy of ErrorsAct IV, Scene 2 -- Dromio of Syracuse

    No, he's in Tartar limbo, worse than hell.
    A devil in an everlasting garment hath him;
    One whose hard heart is button'd up with steel;
    A fiend, a fury, pitiless and rough;
    A wolf, nay, worse, a fellow all in buff;
    A back-friend, a shoulder-clapper, one that
    countermands
    The passages of alleys, creeks and narrow lands;
    A hound that runs counter and yet draws dryfoot well;
    One that before the judgement carries poor souls to hell.
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