Clippers-Wolves preview: Keep the brooms handy

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers can sweep yet another conference rival with the Timberwolves tonight, but it won't be easy on the road and in all probability without Blake Griffin, who experienced back spasm Monday in Houston.

2013/2014 NBA Regular Season
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52-22

36-36
March 31st, 2014, 5:00 PM
Target Center
Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Win-Loss Breakdown
21-9 East 16-11
31-13 West 20-25
31-5 Home 21-14
21-17 Road 15-22
26-14 .500+ 12-26
26-8 .500- 24-10
8-2 L10 5-5
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Ricky Rubio
Darren Collison SG Kevin Martin
Matt Barnes SF Corey Brewer
Glen Davis? PF Kevin Love
DeAndre Jordan C Nikola Pekovic
Advanced Stats
98.26 (7th of 30) Pace 99.91 (4th of 30)
109.2 (2nd of 30) ORtg 105.8 (9th of 30)
101.6 (6th of 30) DRtg 103.7 (13th of 30)
Injuries/Other
J.J. Redick (back) out
A.J. Price (appendectomy) out
Danny Granger (hamstring) out
Ronny Turiaf (knee) out
Blake Griffin (back spasms) day-to-day

The Back Story (The Clippers lead the season series, 3-0):

Date Venue Final

11/11/13 Los Angeles Clippers 109, Wolves 107 Recap Box
11/20/13 Minneapolis Clippers 102, Wolves 98 Recap Box
12/22/13 Los Angeles Clippers 120, Wolves 116 (OT) Recap Box

The Big Picture:

For the third game in a row, the Clippers are facing a Western Conference team they've yet to lose to this season. But unlike the Rockets, whom the Clippers handled pretty easily in each of their four meetings, the Clippers now come up against the Minnesota Timberwolves, against whom they could as easily be winless. Regulation in the three previous meetings was decided by a total of five points, and the Wolves really should have tied the first meeting at the buzzer, while the Clippers should never have been able to force overtime in game three. Tonight's game should be a showdown between two of the league's premier power forwards, but the Clippers will likely play without Blake Griffin, who left Saturday's game with back spasms. The Clippers have listed him as day-to-day, but with a five game cushion over the Trailblazers and only eight games remaining, they're not in much danger of dropping out of the top four in the West, so they'll be cautious with the goal of being as healthy as possible heading into the playoffs. Griffin's young and could bounce back fast, but I personally would be surprised if he plays again on this trip. The team responded well in his absence in Houston. Chris Paul hasn't had to take over as much this season, but did so against the Rockets, while Jamal Crawford and DeAndre Jordan were both terrific as well. But the Clippers aren't going to win often in games in which they miss 29 three pointers (they were 12-41, a season high in attempts) so hopefully they'll hit more shots from the perimeter tonight.

The Antagonist:

Margin of victory is generally considered to be a very effective proxy for team strength, frequently more accurate than straight winning percentage. The Timberwolves have an average MOV this season of 3.3 points, ninth best in the entire NBA -- and yet they have no chance of making the playoffs in the Western Conference (Hollinger's playoff odds page has them at zero percent). This team has one of the most productive players in the NBA, a center who is a beast, one of the best passers and defenders at the point, and a 21 points per 36 minutes shooting guard. So why are the just 36-36? Part of the answer is bad luck -- they've lost a lot of games they probably should have won this season, including a couple against the Clippers. But the team is flawed at least in part because the individual parts are all flawed in one way or another as well. Ricky Rubio is such a dreadful shooter that one wonders whether all his other gifts outweigh his offensive shortcomings. Kevin Love and Kevin Martin are terrible defenders. Pekovic does several things well, but neither he nor Love provide any rim protection -- and the bench leaves much to be desired. The Wolves deserved better than 36-36 this season, and if they were in the East they'd easily be a playoff team. But it's still difficult to see them rising to the top half of the Western Conference as currently constructed.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Timberwolves are above average on both offense and on defense -- but not by much. The Clippers can't quite seem to catch the Heat for most efficient offense in the NBA.
  • Milestones. The win in Houston achieved several milestones for the Clippers. It clinched a playoff berth, the second time in franchise history and first time in Clippers history that they've been to three straight postseasons. They also ensured themselves of a winning road record for the second season in a row.
  • First three meetings. The Clippers may be 3-0 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. The December win was the least likely of all, as the Clippers required a 6-1 run in the final 30 seconds, including a Paul steal, to force overtime. I guess it won't surprise me if this is another close one.
  • Regular season vs. post-season. The Clippers now have two starters (J.J. Redick and Griffin) dealing with back issues. They have two key reserves, both in their thirties, dealing with nagging type injuries (Jamal Crawford's strained calf and Danny Granger's hamstring). The Clippers have an outside chance of catching the Thunder for second place -- OKC has a three game lead, but they have some very difficult games remaining, beginning Thursday against the Spurs. Is it worth pushing hard for the 2 seed, even if that means less healing time for Griffin, et al, or is the top (only?) priority to be healthy for the playoffs?
  • Wolves on a back-to-back. Minnesota played in Brooklyn Sunday night, so they had to travel back to Minneapolis to face the Clippers in this one. The Wolves lost to the Nets as Kevin Love had one of his more lackluster performances, 14 points and nine rebounds.
  • Love "exhausted"? After the Nets game, Love said that he lacked energy and felt exhausted, and that he might be getting sick. That could prove to be a factor against the Clippers tonight.
  • Who starts at the four? If Griffin sits as I suspect, Doc Rivers has a tough decision about who to start at the power forward spot. Hedo Turkoglu is ostensibly the backup on the depth chart, but he's not exactly the guy you want to send out there to battle Kevin Love. Rivers would almost certainly turn to Danny Granger, were he not also injured after tweaking his hamstring a couple games back. And while Jared Dudley got a lot of minutes as a stretch four Saturday in Griffin's absence, the Timberwolves aren't exactly the team to go small against. (Against Houston Rivers had Willie Green playing the four for a ime on defense, guarding the seven foot Donetas Motiejunas.) I'm guessing it will be Glen Davis who gets the start, simply because he can defend either Love or Pekovic. However, Davis lived up to his Big Baby nickname Saturday night when he was petulant after being replaced, and Rivers sent him to the locker room for the rest of the game. Doc tends to be a "next play" kind of guy, so I assume that incident is behind them and Davis will get the call tonight if Doc feels he's the best option.
  • Without Griffin. It's interesting how impotent the Clippers have looked at times when Griffin is not in the game in recent weeks -- compared to how they responded when he was injured last night. It was almost as it the team has been relying on him so much that the others had forgotten that they needed to produce also, but seeing him go to the locker room forced them to step up. We certainly know that Paul is capable of carrying the team, something he's done many times in the past, but he hasn't done it much this season. With Griffin out, Paul carried the Clippers for the final three quarters last night, and they'll need a similar extra effort during any games Griffin misses.
  • 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.
  • 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 -- the Wolves have Kevin Love, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute 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:
    King Lear -- Act II, Scene 4 -- Lear
    Return to her, and fifty men dismiss'd?
    No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose
    To wage against the enmity o' th' air,
    To be a comrade with the wolf and owl-
    Necessity's sharp pinch! Return with her?
    Why, the hot-blooded France, that dowerless took
    Our youngest born, I could as well be brought
    To knee his throne, and, squire-like, pension beg
    To keep base life afoot. Return with her?
    Persuade me rather to be slave and sumpter
    To this detested groom.
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