The Los Angeles Clippers outlasted the Minnesota Timberwolves 110-106 Monday night in a hard-fought game at Target Center. It wasn't easy for the Clippers (is it ever?), but they were able to get a positive result in the first game of their first true "road trip" of the young season. LAC has played consecutive games away from STAPLES Center just once ahead of this current five-game road swing.
The Clippers were able to notch their 14th straight win over the Wolves due in large part to another solid effort out of DeAndre Jordan. He had his lapses at times on defense, but he led L.A. with 20 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in 34 energetic minutes of action. Two of his four rejections came on crucial possessions late in the game at the expense of Zach LaVine that helped nudge the Clips over the finish line.
It was also his activity level early that kept the Clippers in the game. LAC couldn't buy a jump shot throughout the first part of the first quarter, but Jordan was dominating the offensive glass and cleaning up the mess. Five of the Clippers' first six buckets came after an offensive rebound, with D.J. recording four of them. A filthy slam off of a lob from Chris Paul gave Jordan 10 points before the six-minute mark of the frame.
Wait, Chris Paul? Yes, Chris Paul! CP3 started this game despite having been officially listed as "out" earlier in the day, as did J.J. Redick after missing the last two games with an ankle sprain. Neither of them was able to buy a basket in this game (they combined to shoot 6-of-23), but just having them out there had to be a mental lift for the Clippers.
Despite the sluggish offensive start, the Clips still held a 21-12 lead midway through the first quarter, thanks in large part to seven Minnesota turnovers. Unfortunately, as they've done so many times already this year, L.A. was unable to hold their comfy cushion through the end of the period. The Timberwolves mounted a mini-surge with a lineup largely consisting of bench players to close the period, and a double-clutch three-pointer by Zach LaVine brought them to within four after one.
The Wolves' reserves were a pain for the Clippers throughout this one. Minnesota's backups combined to score 59 points, led by 21 from LaVine. The combination of Shabazz Muhammad and Nemanja Bjelica gave L.A. plenty of problems as they helped the T-Wolves storm back to build a 51-43 lead at one point late in the second. Those two finished the first half with a total of 16 points and 10 boards on 5-11 shooting in the first 24 minutes alone. Fortunately, LAC once again got excellent offensive games from both Wesley Johnson and Jamal Crawford. As they did Saturday against Orlando, Johnson and Crawford accounted for almost all of the Clippers' offense from beyond-the-arc. Wesley hit 2-of-4 from deep, while Jamal finished 4-of-6. The only other players on the team to hit a three in this game were Lance Stephenson and CP3, and Paul's was a desperate heave at the death of the first half that brought the Clippers to within two at 52-50. Crazily enough, this play would wind up being rather crucial in the end.
The third quarter started normally enough, but then Kevin Garnett did this to Blake Griffin (via @TheCauldron):
Kevin Garnett's turn back the clock poster of Blake Griffin with all the angles and reactions pic.twitter.com/7phE8a5FMk
— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) December 8, 2015
This is just ferocious. It was also Garnett's first dunk as a member of the Timberwolves since April 9th, 2007. He's obviously been elsewhere since then, but that's still a looooooong time ago.
The second half wasn't even five minutes old before Doc yanked Luc Mbah a Moute in favor of Johnson. This is easily one of the smartest things Doc has done all year. Luc has started each of the last five games at small forward, though there really isn't a good reason for this. He's absolutely terrified to take an open shot on offense, and his on-ball defense hasn't been anything to write home about, either. He's a situational player, not a starter. It's almost like there's a reason he was unsigned until late September!
CP3 was actively seeking to score in the third, but clearly didn't have his legs under him. He was missing the midrange shots he'd normally make, which effectively killed the effectiveness of the Clipper pick-and-roll. Minnesota's bigs were dropping back and giving Paul the jumper, but he couldn't make them pay.
Gorgui Dieng and Muhammad provided an offensive spark for the Timberwolves late in the third, and the Clippers were lucky to trail by only six heading into the fourth. A sloppy Crawford turnover led to a Muhammad jam right at the buzzer, but the officials eventually ruled that it came after the horn had sounded. As was the case with the Paul miracle three at the end of the second, this would loom large.
Fortunately, the Clips were able to erase Minnesota's advantage with a 7-0 run to start the fourth. An Austin Rivers layup, a Crawford triple and a Josh Smith putback dunk gave L.A. a 78-77 lead with just over 10 minutes to go. The teams traded baskets and free throws through the middle part of the frame until consecutive Wesley Johnson jumpers gave L.A. a 91-90 advantage with 4:24 to go. Following a cold CP3 jumper, the Wolves reeled off six consecutive points to go up 96-93. Minnesota is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league (they've made fewer threes than Steph Curry this season), but the Clippers allowed them to go 7-of-18 (38.9%) on this night.
The Clipper offense was incredibly vanilla at this point, and it seemed like they were hardly running anything. They were taking far too long to get into their sets, and they couldn't take advantage of the Wolves' aggressive style in defending the pick-and-roll. Ricky Rubio was easily getting over screens and sticking to Paul's hip which thwarted LAC's efforts to get into the paint. The Clippers thrive offensively on quick action and rapid ball movement, but neither was happening. Trying to milk the clock in lieu of running your offense is a death wish that the Clippers were lucky to avoid. Fortunately, DeAndre saved the day.
A Jordan alley-oop brought L.A. to within one with 51 seconds to go before D.J. then swatted LaVine's floater attempt on the next possession. Griffin would score off the ensuing break to give the Clippers a 99-98 lead with 25.5 seconds remaining. Following a timeout, the Wolves threw the inbounds pass out of bounds and it was a free throw shooting contest from that point. The Clips hit their last 11 free throws (26-for-29 in the game!), icing Minnesota's chances of a comeback.
Any win is a good win for the Clippers these days, regardless of the competition. The Timberwolves are young and feisty, but it's essential for a team of the Clippers' caliber to win games like these, which they did. Being able to win a game in which several of your key players struggle is the hallmark of any good team. Jordan's 8-of-9 effort removed, L.A.'s starters combined to shoot 13-of-44 in this one, good for 29.5%. That is putrid, but the Clippers were able to win anyway. It helped that reigning Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins was held to just eight points on 3-for-15 shooting from the floor. Jordan and Josh Smith each did a fine job of challenging his looks at the rim, essentially turning one of Minnesota's primary offensive threats into a non-factor. Here's his ugly shot chart:
He came off the bench tonight, but it's abundantly clear that Wesley Johnson is easily the Clips' best option to start at small forward. He's a serviceable enough defender and is a far better shooter than LMAM, Paul Pierce or Lance Stephenson. Pierce is downright unplayable these days, and, hopefully Doc has finally realized it. The 38-year-old saw just over six minutes of action tonight, and they were six brutal minutes. Stephenson has been a fine addition, though he isn't able to make much of an impact if Doc won't let him initiate offense when he's out there. Lance has shown at times that he's capable of carrying the second unit offensively, but Doc (for some reason) remains abstinent to the idea. It's a gross misuse of a player that can help the team when given the opportunity.
And then there's the heavily-maligned Jamal Crawford. He will always be a minus on defense, but this was his second straight positive offensive game. He scored 18 points and doled out seven assists on tidy 5-of-11 shooting from the floor, including the aforementioned four three-pointers. When he's under control and not forcing the action, he's still a useful cog offensively. Jamal played 27 minutes tonight (due primarily to the ineffectiveness of the rusty Redick), but it seems as though he can still provide a spark in a limited role. Doc has the right ingredients at his disposal (we've hardly even mentioned the positive influence of Josh Smith tonight), it's just a matter of mixing them correctly. Is he capable of doing so? Time will tell.
Jordan afforded both Karl-Anthony Towns (who went 3-of-3 from three-point range and whose greatness deserves its own column) and Gorgui Dieng to far too many open jumpers, but there's a good chance the Clips would've been blown-out in this game without him. D.J. has drawn the ire of plenty of Clippers supporters so far this season, but he proved his worth throughout this game. Here's hoping this is something similar to the DeAndre Jordan we'll see throughout the remainder of the season.
It was ugly, but it was a win. The Clippers (12-9) will now head to Milwaukee to take on the struggling Bucks Wednesday night.