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Clippers-Timberwolves: The long, long road

The Clippers open a season long eight game road trip tonight in Minneapolis against the Timberwolves. They'll be without Chris Paul for a while longer but need to keep winning to keep pace in the West.

2012/2013 NBA Regular Season

January 30th, 2013, 5:00 PM
Target Center
Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Eric Bledsoe PG Ricky Rubio
Willie Green SG Luke Ridnour
Caron Butler SF Andrei Kirilenko
Blake Griffin PF Derrick Williams
DeAndre Jordan C Nikola Pekovic
Advanced Stats through Jan. 29
91.7 (14th of 30) Pace 91.9 (13th of 30)
109.9 (4th of 30) ORtg 102.8 (25th of 30)
101.5 (5th of 30) DRtg 105.1 (12th of 30)
Chris Paul (knee) DTD
Kevin Love (hand surgery) out
Chauncey Billups (ankle) out
Chase Budinger (knee surgery) out
Trey Thompkins (knee) out
Brandon Roy (knee surgery) out

Malcolm Lee (knee surgery) out

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

Back in November the Timberwolves were the Clippers first victim in their 17 game winning streak. Now L.A. faces Minnesota at the start of a season-long eight game road trip, hoping to be at the start of something big once again. Barring a surprise return, tonight will be the eighth game in the last 10 the Clippers will play without Chris Paul, and he was clearly subpar in the other games as well. So maybe it's not so surprising that the team is 5-5 in those 10 games. The Clippers managed to beat Minnesota two weeks ago without Paul, but it wasn't particularly pretty and had more to do with the Wolves being a mess than with the Clippers playing particularly well. But Blake Griffin is playing some of his best basketball of the season right now and the Wolves have absolutely no answer for him, so he should be able to lead the Clippers to a win here, provided he gets even a little support from the rest of the team.

The Antagonist:

Rather than focus on all the guys the Timberwolves won't have in this game (most notably Kevin Love), let's instead accentuate the positive. For tonight's game they will get their coach back on the sideline, and they are also supposed to have starting center Nikola Pekovic and key reserve Alexey Shved back. Pekovic and Shved were both hurt in the second half of the last Clippers game, and the Wolves have been seriously undermanned since. With six roster players hurt for the last 12 days, they had to get injury exceptions from the league to go over the roster limit of 15 just to have enough bodies to practice. Other than the return of Pekovic and Shved, the good news for Minnesota is that Ricky Rubio is beginning to play better. Saturday against Charlotte he had his best game since returning from ACL surgery, posting season highs in points (14), assists (8) and steals (5). He's back in the starting lineup and beginning to look a little like last season's Rubio. But while they have some pieces back, they'll still feel the loss of Love, and by losing nine of their last ten they've essentially fallen out of the playoff race, dropping behind the Lakers and Mavs into 12th place in the conference.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Clippers and Wolves play at an almost identical pace on the season, although, with Chris Paul out the Clippers will play faster with Bledsoe, and the Wolves might have to play faster in order to score with so many key guys missing -- so it might be a pretty fast-paced game.
  • When is too late? By the time Love is ready to return from his broken hand (his target is mid-March) the Wolves will be a distant memory, and I'm guessing they'll hold him out until next season rather than (a) risk another injury or (b) risk winning some meaningless games and hurting their lottery odds.
  • Johnson and Gelabale. With their injury exceptions, the Wolves recently signed center Chris Johnson and forward Mickael Gelabale to 10 day contracts. They each signed their second 10 day contract yesterday, but with Pekovic and Shved back, they may not be around much longer. Nine days from now the Wolves will have to decide whether to cut them or sign them for the rest of the season.
  • Bad offense. Rick Adelman is one of the great offensive coaches in the NBA and Rubio and Love are major offensive weapons. But the Wolves have not been healthy all season -- Rubio and Love have barely shared the court this season and neither of them was fully healthy in the few of games they did play together -- and the Minnesota offense is ranked 25th in the league. It does't help that they are the only team in the league shooting under 30 percent from three point range.
  • Three point shooting. The fact that Wolves are truly dreadful shooting the three bodes very well for the Clippers. The most common characteristic of their defeats this season has been high-volume, high-percentage three point shooting. They've only lost 13 games all season, and they are 0-8 when their opponent makes 11 or more threes while shooting over 40%. With a dearth of shooters on the Wolves, this should not be a problem tonight, so that particular Achilles heel would seem not to be exposed.
  • Adelman's absence. Rick Adelman has been away from the Timberwolves for three weeks, spending time with his wife who was suffering with an undisclosed ailment. He returned to the team this week and tonight's game is the first time he'll be back on the bench. He also finally discussed what had hospitalized his wife, who has been suffering from still undiagnosed seizures.
  • Injuries suck. Clipper fans know all too well the pain of seeing a promising season lost to injuries. For all the talk of playing through them, of having enough depth to withstand them (and Adelman did that better than anyone in Houston) the simple fact is that injuries matter. The most successful teams in any one season are, by and large, not just relatively healthy, but very healthy. The Clippers aren't as good without Chris Paul. The Wolves aren't as good without Kevin Love. This isn't rocket science folks.
  • Wolves reeling. The Wolves have lost four straight and nine of their last ten. They are 2-9 since losing Love for the second time. Adding insult to injury, they lost a double digit second half lead in Charlotte in their last game.
  • A tale of two months. This is the final game of January for the Clippers. After completing a perfect 16-0 December, only the third time in NBA history a team has gone 16-0 in a calendar month, they stand at 8-7 in January. They need a win tonight to finish above break even for the month. After 16-0, 9-7 will be a letdown, but at least it would be a winning record; 8-8 would feel far worse.
  • No Love, who guards Griffin? With Love out, the Wolves have tried Dante Cunningham and second year pro Derrick Williams at power forward. Trouble is, both of them are tweeners, and don't really have the size to contend with Griffin. Kirilenko is a monster defender but doesn't have the strength to handle Griffin. Blake's been on a role, and there's every reason to think that will continue tonight.
  • Griffin the facilitator. In the last two games Blake Griffin has handed out 19 assists in 66 minutes -- which is roughly the same as Chris Paul's assist per minute ratio on the season. Griffin's had success passing out of several sets. Posting up on the block, he has found Green, Butler and Jordan diving to the basket as their men ball watch. On the pick and roll he has made some nice quick passes both to perimeter shooters and to the rim to Jordan. Basically, the Clippers are having a lot of success getting Griffin the ball in the middle of the floor, forcing the defense to react, and counting on Griffin to make a play. Lately a lot of those plays have been timely passes. Griffin is currently fourth in the league among forwards in assists per game -- and first among power forwards. In the month of January, he's averaging 4.9 assists per game, a number better than many point guards. At his current rate he may well be second only to LeBron James in assists among forwards by the end of the season.
  • Floppy Barea. A week ago J.J. Barea became the second player this season to be hit with a fine by the league for a second flopping violation. It's not news that Barea is a notorious flopper -- his Academy Award worthy death scene opposite Baron Davis a few seasons back almost sparked a fight between Davis and Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle who was completely taken in by Barea's act. The funny thing is, the two plays the NBA fined him for (here and here) weren't really much by JJB's standards.
  • Clipper killers. The Wolves have lost nine of ten and are missing Love and many other key players, but it's easy to find reasons to worry about this game. Derrick Williams had one of the best games of his young career against the Clippers last season, and Barea has been a notorious Clipper-killer for years.
  • Connections. Chauncey Billups resurrected his lottery-bust-track career in Minnesota, where he took over the starting job for an injured Terrell Brandon over a decade ago. From there he signed a free agent deal in Detroit and became Mr. Big Shot. Ryan Hollins spent a season in Minnesota during Love's second year in the league. Fun fact -- Hollins got more starts that year (27) than Love did (22). Gelabale and Ronny Turiaf played for the French National Team at the London Olympics this summer. And in the reach department, the Wolves briefly signed Will Conroy earlier this season -- he played four games for the Wolves this year, six seasons after playing four games with the Clippers in 06-07. Conroy has an NBA career spanning six years, four teams, 16 games -- and 108 total NBA minutes.
  • Get the Timberwolves perspective at Canis Hoopus.
  • Lyrical reference:

    Wolves, Lower -- R.E.M.

    Suspicion yourself, suspicion yourself, don't get caught
    Suspicion yourself, suspicion yourself, let us out
    Wilder lower wolves. Here's a house to put wolves out the door
    In a corner garden, wilder lower wolves
    House in order, house in order, house in order, house in order
    Down there they're rounding a posse to ride

    This song is off R.E.M.'s EP Chronic Town, released in 1982, prior to their first full length album Murmur. It's a little hard to believe that R.E.M. has been recording for over 30 years. I'm really, really old. But I still love R.E.M.