Well, the Clippers caught a couple of teams decimated by injuries on this trip, winning games over the depleted Heat and Hornets. Tonight, they face a team going the other direction, when they play the rested, healthy and hot Timberwolves. The Wolves have won 7 of their last 9, including 3 straight in Overtime, and have climbed into the seventh spot overall in the Western Conference.
A quick aside - I read somewhere recently that the New York Knicks would probably win the Atlantic, simply because they're the only team that does NOT benefit from tanking their season and heading for the lottery, since Chicago has the right to swap picks with the Knicks this season. Philly has already made the decision to tank, with Boston inching closer to the tipping point. With Vince Carter in an option year and Jason Kidd getting older, it's easy to imagine New Jersey going into the tank if things aren't looking better nearer trade deadline. It's an interesting point. The Clippers will potentially have a similar situation. As you know, the Clippers have Minnesota's first round pick next year (top 10 protected) as the final piece of the Jaric/Cassell trade. If Minnesota keeps playing well, and assuming that Denver re-establishes itself as a playoff `lock' upon Carmelo's return from suspension, the Clippers and Wolves figure to be two of the teams vying for the last playoff spot. As long as the Wolves remain around the 8th spot, the Clippers have EVERYTHING to play for, since making the playoffs and knocking the Wolves out gives them basically the same picks as NOT making the playoffs.
When these two teams met at the Target Center back on November 25, the Clippers fell apart in the fourth quarter and were outscored 19-2 in the game's final 5 minutes, losing a game that they had won.
In that game, Sam Cassell came out smoking, and for the Clippers to have any chance, he'll probably have to do the same tonight. Certainly Sam has some extra motivation going against the team that traded him for Marko Jaric.
The Wolves don't seem to be any better on paper this season than the team that has missed the playoffs two years in a row, so what's going on? The short answer is, I don't really know.
One thing the Wolves do have is stability. Of 32 games this season, they've used the same starting lineup in 31 of them. The Clippers on the other hand have used 12 different starting lineups.
Mike James was signed this off-season to play the point, but by most accounts has been a disappointment (he's averaging 12 points per game after averaging 20 in Toronto last year). Randy Foye has had some nice games as a rookie (he had his breakout game against the Clippers and then scored 25 in a win over the Bulls), but isn't really a difference maker right now. And Ricky Davis is more or less the same player he's always been (he has traditionally killed the Clippers, btw). So why are these Garnettes (the term used to refer collectively to KG's supporting cast) more effective than the last two editions?
Let me be Blount. Mark Blount. A talented underachiever going back to his college days at Pittsburgh, Blount is averaging career highs in points per game (13) and minutes per game (31) while shooting 54.4% from the field. These aren't massive numbers, but they are making a difference for the Wolves. And during the Wolves recent surge, he has been particularly effective, averaging over 18 per game in the last 8 and 21.5 in the last 4.
Still, one can't help but feel like the Clippers have more talent than the Wolves in at least 3 of the 5 positions, and hold their own in the others. If Cassell can play (who knows after scoring 31 points in 35 minutes on his tender foot against the Hornets on Monday), he should be able to provide the additional offense the Clippers have been lacking. Just as key will be Kaman's matchup against Blount. Before the season started, you would have said that the Clippers owned this matchup - now, it's looking like a toss-up, if not advantage Wolves. It is also possible that the Clippers will get Corey Maggette back tonight, though I'll believe that when I see it.
This game is the most important of the trip. Not just because it can salvage a .500 trip and bring the Clippers home with some momentum. No, this is important for a much more practical reason - the Wolves are in the Western Conference, and ahead of the Clippers in the standings. Wins over the Wolves and Warriors in the next week help the Clippers while hurting conference rivals. If they can't get up for this game, they don't deserve a playoff spot.