The Big Picture
The Clippers come into this game having withstood a barrage of three-pointers from seemingly every Thunder role player and a nearly-successful Hack-a-DeAndre stint for a redeeming victory over Oklahoma City. It’s not a big deal or anything, but that pushes their record up to 8-1, which just so happens to be the best mark in the league.
The Clippers have looked nearly-telepathic on both ends of the floor, a product of their continuity from last season, and there has been no more pleasant surprise to Clippers fans than the emergence of an elite defense. The Thunder may have put up 108 points, but it took unexpected shooting performances from Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and Andre Roberson. The Clippers executed their scheme, forced 17 turnovers, and neutralized the Thunder rebounding advantage thanks to the same exceptional effort that we’ve come to expect this year.
Though this game will be the second night of a tough-fought back-to-back, the Clippers should enter the game relatively well-rested given their string of recent blowouts that have earned the starters some fourth quarter leisure time. A win over the Timberwolves would cap off a 4-0 week with wins over three likely playoff teams (DET, POR, OKC) and a Minnesota team stacked with young talent.
The dark-horse darlings of national media and fans alike prior to the season, the Wolves haven’t taken advantage of a fourth-easiest strength of schedule to begin the year. With their only two victories coming over a Memphis Grizzlies team that was resting their stars and a sputtering Orlando Magic squad, and bad losses to the Sacramento Kings and Brooklyn Nets, Minnesota doesn’t look like they’re quite ready to make the leap into the Western Conference elite.
That said, don’t let the 2-5 record fool you -- the Timberwolves come into tonight’s game sporting a +3.7 net rating that ranks ninth in the league. The team’s 21-year-old triumvirate of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine has proven to have enough offensive firepower to make up for a defense that doesn’t yet look Thibodeau-ian. With season-highs of 33, 36, and 37 respectively, any one of the young’ns is liable to single-handedly decimate a defense on a given night.
Ricky Rubio has missed the Timberwolves’ last five games with a sprained elbow that was originally expected to sideline him indefinitely, but it looks as though he’ll be able to return to the court soon, even as early as tonight. In his absence, Tyus Jones has done everything in his power to muddy up the depth chart behind Rubio, outplaying #5-pick Kris Dunn and earning nearly double Dunn’s minutes (63 to 32) off the bench in the past two games. If Rubio sits this one out, expect Thibodeau to lean heavily on Jones, though he might have a difficult time replicating his recent production against a Clippers defense that has been notoriously tough on opposing point guards.
- And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for... let’s talk Cole Aldrich. The lumbering gentle giant quickly became a fan favorite during his stop in L.A. last year and, as any true fan should, I’m not ashamed to admit that I shed a tear (or several) when Minnesota lured him back to his home state in the offseason. Unfortunately for Cole Train, it’s been a slow start to 2016-2017: In 13.0 MPG, he’s averaging just 2.0 PTS and 3.7 REBS. Though Minnesotans haven’t yet bore witness to that gorgeous, sweeping hook shot or stifling rim protection in full, it took Cole a little while to get his engine revving last year as well. Mo Speights has tried his best, but he hasn’t quite been able to fill that Cole Aldrich-shaped hole in our hearts. Damn you, cap spike.
- Don’t look now, but J.J. Redick seems to have found that shooting stroke that had been M.I.A. to start the season. Over the Clippers last four games he’s averaging 15.0 PPG, he’s 10-16 from deep, and it sure looks like he has his confidence back. It’s no secret that J.J. is the key to realizing the full potential of the Core Four and it’s no coincidence that the offense has been on the up since Redick has starting finding the bottom of the net with his usual consistency.
- Beware of the third quarter, Wolves fans. In a trend that has plagued the team so far this season, they’re, well, really bad when taking the court after halftime. And when I say bad, I mean -35.0-net-rating-bad. Yikes. The Clippers, on the other hand, have posted a +16.9 third quarter net-rating and should look to capitalize if Minnesota doesn’t step it up in the third.
- The DeAndre Jordan/Karl-Anthony Towns matchup should be a fun one. The reigning First-Team All-NBA Center and the guy who many predicted would unseat him this year will do battle in the paint for the first time this season. DJ has struggled in the past with centers with range, something KAT definitely doesn’t lack, but he has been contesting jumpers well through nine games and remains a force to be reckoned with around the rim on both ends of the court. Popcorn ready.
- Finally, the Clippers have made it clear that they’re perfectly content with giving up threes to below-average shooters this season. It’s a strategy that has served them well thus far, to say the least. Unfortunately, the Timberwolves lead the league in three-point shooting at 41.4% thanks to hot starts from Wiggins (63.6%), LaVine (48.9%), and Towns (43.5%). The Clippers are going to have to pick their poison when it comes to who they can sag off, but as they showed against the Thunder, it’ll take more than just a hot shooting night to knock them out.
Following in Taylor’s footsteps from yesterday (even though I resent his take on country music), here’s my favorite from one of Minnesota’s own. The living legend just barely beat out Prince for the great honor of being featured on a game preview, a distinction on par with - oh, I don’t know - a Nobel Prize, perhaps? Still no word on whether or not Mr. Dylan will make an appearance to accept his Clips Nation plaque.