The Back Story: (Clippers swept the seasons series last year, 4-0)
The Big Picture:
The Clippers got an impressive and much-needed win in Houston on Saturday, coming back from 11 points down in the third quarter to beat the Rockets by 13. It was the first time this season that the Clippers have won with defense, which was a welcome sight given how poor they've been on that end. The Clippers are 4-3, which isn't great, but isn't bad considering that they're still finding their way under new head coach Doc Rivers. They've played five of their first seven games on the road, and will be glad to be back in STAPLES Center, where they are 2-0 on the season. In home games so far the Clippers have been almost unstoppable on offense -- they've scored 263 points in two games and have scored at least 32 points in six out of eight quarters when playing at home. The starting unit for the Clippers has been almost exclusively good news: Chris Paul is leading the league in assists, DeAndre Jordan is second in rebounding, Blake Griffin is averaging a 20/10, J.J. Redick has been great; but the bench has been a different story, and the Clippers will have to figure that out if they want to be a top team.
I hadn't seen anything more than a few minutes of the Timberwolves this season until last night when they destroyed the Lakers. The numbers say that they've been very good on defense and OK on offense in compiling their 4-2 (now 5-2) record. Common sense and my eyes tell me that they are actually more of an offensive-minded team -- they certainly were last night. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I think Kevin Martin was a big loss for the Thunder this summer -- and conversely he's a great addition to Minnesota. The Wolves have a big three of their own, with superstar power forward Kevin Love, Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio, and emerging center Nikola Pekovic -- those three core players are finally healthy all at the same time, and they've added Martin and Corey Brewer on the wing, and things seem to be clicking pretty well. There are six teams in the West who are widely considered to be more or less locks to make the playoffs, leaving two spots for other teams to grab -- the Wolves were the trendy pick to take one of those, and that pick is looking better and better at this point. In fact, even though it's early, it's pretty scary to think about the potential first round matchups in the West for everyone except the first seed. This Wolves team is loaded.
- The Questionable Blogger. EricinMadison, editor of the Wolves blog Canis Hoopus, answered some questions for us before this game. Be sure to head over to CH to see my answers to his questions as well.
- Comparison of key metrics. I have switched to 2013-2014 season number beginning with this game. The sample size is still small, but for a team like the Wolves, who had so many injuries last season, there's little point in talking about last season's team. As I mentioned, the Wolves have been very good defensively so far -- which is a bit counter-intuitive. On paper, you'd expect them to be tough to stop, but they have no shot-blocking and some poor individual defenders, so you wouldn't expect them to be great on defense. The Clippers are no longer first in offensive efficiency in the league -- the Heat snuck past them just barely for the time being. But they did also get out of last place in defensive efficiency too. So that's good.
- NBA Leaderboard. This game features players at or near the top of the league in many statistical categories. Love leads the league in rebounding, and Jordan is second. Paul leads the league in assists. Rubio leads the league in steals, Paul is third. Love is second in the league in scoring and has a league-leading six 20/10 games, while Griffin is second in 20/10s with four. Paul and Love are both in the top five in the league in PER. These teams both have players putting up numbers.
- 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.
- Love and Griffin. The marquee matchup of the game is definitely Griffin vs. Love. Love will pull Griffin out away from the basket and shoot jump shots and of course he is a demon on the boards. Griffin will try to use his quickness on Love, but will also try to overpower him in the post at times as well. If either man dominates this matchup, the advantage goes to that team. Griffin's tendency in rebounding is to ignore boxing out and just go after the ball -- that will not fly with Love. He's got to put his body on Love if the Clippers want to avoid getting killed on the glass.
- Another Nikola. The Clippers were lit up by a Montenegran center by the name of Nikola last Wednesday in Orlando. Pekovic is a different player than Vucevic, but no less effective when he's playing well. In fact, he's hasn't been playing very well so far this season, which makes the Wolves hot start even scarier -- when Pekovic is shooting better than 40% from the field as he will undoubtedly be eventually, how good will this team be? DeAndre needs to hold his ground against the uber-strong Pekovic, and not bite on his pump fakes.
- Martin and the Clippers. A little like James Harden's struggles now, back when Kevin Martin was a top scorer for Sacramento, he always seemed to struggle against the Clippers. Indeed, his 14.5 career average in 22 games against the Clippers is more than three points off his overall average. More importantly, while Martin has always been a very efficient scorer, he has shot just 38% in his career versus the Clippers. Yikes. There's no reasonable explanation for this (not since Quentin Ross left the Clippers anyway); just one of those things.
- Love the three ball. In his career, Kevin Love has steadily increased his three point attempts per minute every season he's been in the league, from basically never as a rookie, to 2.2 attempts per 36 in his second season, to 2.9, to 4.7, to 6.4 so far this season. He's been hot and cold with the long ball this season -- he had an 0-7 night a week ago -- but he torched the Lakers for four of them in the first quarter last night. Griffin will have to get out on him and get a hand up -- not something Blake always likes to do.
- Defending the best. Thursday in Miami, Griffin spent significant time defending the best small forward in the NBA (and the best player for that matter), LeBron James. Saturday in Houston he spent a lot of time on the best center in the NBA, Dwight Howard. Tonight, he'll be going up against the best power forward in the NBA (at least the best one who's not him). That's a pretty tough set of assignments over the course of three days.
- The easiest road back-to-back. The Wolves are on a back-to-back away from home, which is never easy, but when both games occur in the same building, it makes it a little easier. Playing the Lakers and the Clippers on consecutive nights in L.A., the Wolves get to stay in the same hotel, have no travel between games, etc. Of course, Love went to school here, so hopefully he's been out partying all night with an extra day in L.A., so maybe this works to the Clippers advantage.
- Small ball is an option. You wouldn't really want to ask Jared Dudley or Matt Barnes to defend Love (who would destroy them on the glass) or Pekovic (who would abuse them in the post), but the Wolves use with Dante Cunningham or Derrick Williams as their big(s) off the bench, so the Clippers should be able to play small ball when either Love or Pek is out of the game. Rivers eschewed his backup bigs completely in the successful second half in Houston -- resorting to a seven man rotation. If Barnes is back (and assuming Dudley is a go), that can be eight. We'll see.
- Dudley and Barnes. Keep your eye on twitter today for injury news on Barnes and Dudley. Barnes has missed the last three games with a thigh contusion -- he was hoping to play in Houston but could not, so hopefully he'll be read for this one. Dudley has been battling knee tendinitis but fought through it to play against the Rockets.
- 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. The Wolves signed Corey Brewer this summer (ironically, Brewer started in Minnesota and had been considered a major lottery bust at the time) and he is one of the best in the NBA at releasing early and getting behind the defense -- he did it constantly in Denver last season. 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.
- Three point shooting. After being dead last in three point percentage last season (.305), the Wolves are a little better, but still pretty bad (53 for 156, .340 after a 10-20 performance against the Lakers last night). Martin and Love are the main guys you have to watch out for. J.J. Barea will take them, as will Brewer, but those guys aren't likely to hurt you from deep. Stay close to Martin and Love and make them put the ball on the floor.
- Clipper killers. Derrick Williams had one of the best games of his young career against the Clippers two seasons ago, and Barea has been a notorious Clipper-killer for years. Love will probably get his, but the question is who else is going to step up to hurt the Clippers.
- 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.
- Get the Minnesota perspective at Canis Hoopus.
- Shakespearean reference:
Sonnet XCVI (96)
Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness;
Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport;
Both grace and faults are loved of more and less;
Thou makest faults graces that to thee resort.
As on the finger of a throned queen
The basest jewel will be well esteem'd,
So are those errors that in thee are seen
To truths translated and for true things deem'd.
How many lambs might the stem wolf betray,
If like a lamb he could his looks translate!
How many gazers mightst thou lead away,
If thou wouldst use the strength of all thy state!
But do not so; I love thee in such sort
As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report.