“No ice cream tonight!” DeAndre Jordan proclaimed as he finished his post-game interview. The Los Angeles Clippers took care of business tonight against the Minnesota Timberwolves and DJ’s impressive free-throw display thwarted the Target Center fans of an ice cream promotion that kicks in if an opposing team misses back-to-back free throws in the fourth quarter. The offense looked like the juggernaut that we’ve grown accustomed to, shooting 52.6% from the field and 11-of-24 from deep en route to 119 points, their highest output so far this season.
In one of the most well-rounded offensive games that I can remember, all five starters contributed at least 15 points and Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan posted double-doubles, with 20-11 and 18-16, respectively. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute played one of the best games of his Clippers career, finishing with 15 points (his Clippers-high) and hounding Andrew Wiggins into an 8-of-24 shooting night. If he can make the corner three with some consistency, make hard, smart cuts off the ball, and continue to serve as a swiss-army knife on the defensive end, the Clippers may not have to keep looking for that missing piece at the small forward position.
The Timberwolves bullied the Clippers on the offensive glass (15 offensive boards), which kept the first half competitive, but as the Clippers’ shots continued to fall, they just didn’t have the offensive firepower to keep up. They were led by Karl-Anthony Towns’ 24 and 10, but weren’t able to overcome a poor shooting night from Wiggins and a quiet night from Zach LaVine. If there’s one silver lining to point to for Minnesota fans, it has to be Rubio’s return from injury. Though he only managed 24 minutes and didn’t see the floor in the fourth quarter, his all-around performance (7-6-6) and ability to manage the offense should give the team a boost as his minutes increase.
As Tom Thibodeau hinted to reporters yesterday, Ricky Rubio was healthy enough to make the start tonight against the Clippers. He asserted himself early, stealing an offensive rebound from between Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and feeding Karl-Anthony Towns for the easy dunk. Just a couple of possessions later he executed a beautiful alley-oop pass to a cutting Andrew Wiggins - safe to say his elbow is feeling just fine.
It was a slow start offensively as both teams struggled to get their legs underneath them. Coming off a hard-fought victory over the Thunder last night, the Clippers looked tired, especially on the defensive glass. Luckily, the Timberwolves, who couldn’t hit anything from outside the paint, weren’t able to take advantage of the extra opportunities in the early going. J.J. paced the offense with three midrange jumpers that got the job done until Chris Paul seemed to wake the Clippers with a big shot from downtown to retake the lead at 11-10.
Andrew Wiggins showed off his athleticism on an and-1 with a nifty spin into the lane and off-balance finish before the Clippers put their foot on the gas. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute impressed with a strong baseline take and finish through a foul from Towns and another CP3 bomb from downtown forced a Tom Thibodeau timeout.
Jamal picked up where he left off after last night’s fourth quarter, hitting two big jumpers and dropping a perfect dime to Marreese Speights for an easy lay in. His scorching hot play combined with back-to-back Blake buckets that and a silky smooth Mo Buckets three-ball put the team up 34-21 at the end of the first (after an earlier Jamal shot was reviewed and changed to a long-two).
The offense got rolling after the 6-minute mark and the Clippers finished the quarter shooting 68.2% with assists on 9 of their 15 made field goals. With the Timberwolves shooting just 39.1% from the field, this one looked like it had the makings of another early season blowout.
We got our first glimpse of the full second-unit (Brandon Bass in for Wesley Johnson, who missed the game due to a heel injury) to start the quarter and it made us forget about that potential blowout very quickly. Cole Aldrich jumpstarted the Wolves with a dunk off of an offensive rebound and after trading threes, Zach LaVine threw down a thunderous jam to trim the Clippers’ lead to single digits and force a Doc Rivers timeout.
Three consecutive turnovers torpedoed any sort of momentum that the Clippers’ starters had earned and LaVine continued to do damage, hitting a three that got Chris, Blake, and DJ up off the bench and headed towards the scorer’s table. It’s been a while since we’ve heard this, but by the time Doc brought the core back into the game, a 13-point lead had dwindled to just three points due to the uninspired, sloppy bench minutes.
However, as they’ve been known to do over the last several seasons, the starters righted the ship. J.J. hit a huge three in transition to put the team up six points and Blake showed off his fast break prowess on a highlight-reel euro-step dunk that had Towns on his heels and a slick drop-off assist to DJ beneath the rim. J.J. closed the half with a clutch make coming out of a timeout to put the Clippers up 60-51. Based on the eye test, it felt like it should have been more.
Though the Clippers’ offense didn’t show any effects of the back-to-back, they really struggled to contain the energetic Wolves on the offensive glass. Rubio and Towns both took advantage of the Clippers’ lethargy on the boards, which allowed them to stay within striking distance despite allowing the Clippers to shoot 59.1% from the field and losing the fast break points battle 14 to 2.
In stark contrast to the first half, the Clippers came out of the break firing on all cylinders. Unlikely offensive hero, Mbah a Moute knocked down a corner three-pointer and went coast-to-coast for an easy two to put the squad up 65-54. Unfortunately, three straight turnovers led to four Timberwolves’ points before J.J. stopped the bleeding with a big long-ball as the shot clock wound down.
Whatever Doc Rivers said to the team at half seemed to work, as the Clippers defense came out with far more energy than in the first half. The help defense was quicker to react, they were contesting nearly every jumper, and they bent, but didn’t break on the defensive glass.
Chris Paul has been absolutely scorching the nets from deep to start the season and tonight was no exception. Just as it looked like the Timberwolves might have a bit of a run in them, CP pulled the trigger early in the clock after a huge DJ block and put the Clippers up 79-63.
The offense kept rolling as another Luc corner-three and some free throws from BG helped support the bench reinforcements and pushed the lead to 17 points before two Wiggins free throws brought the score to 88-73 at the close of the third. The Timberwolves had no answer for the Clippers’ offense and though they threatened to seize some momentum, they weren’t able to string together enough stops to keep the Clippers from pulling ahead.
A Jamal bucket and a strong Austin Rivers take to the rack pushed the lead to 19 to start the quarter, but the Clippers’ bench looked out of sorts and really missed Wesley Johnson’s length and versatility.
The beginning of the quarter didn’t provide much besides sloppy play, but what it did give us is a new Marreese Speights nickname courtesy of Mike Smith: “The Space-Eater.” It might not have the same ring as Mo Buckets, but it does pretty accurately capture his essence.
The bench made enough open shots to give the starters a half-quarter of rest, but the wheels started to fall off and finally a Tyus Jones three forced Doc’s hand, who brought the starters back with just under six minutes to play. Just about as soon as DeAndre Jordan stepped onto the court we were blessed with four minutes of, you guessed it, Hack-a-DJ.
At least the free ice cream promotion made for a narrative that somewhat mitigated Tom Thibodeau’s four-minute assault on the beautiful game of basketball. With no regard for the human attention span, the Wolves sent DJ to the line on eight separate occasions. DJ seemed to relish the opportunity to prove himself at the charity stripe, however, and hit 10-of-16 freebies in a stretch that ultimately extended the Clippers’ lead by three points (note to opposing coaches: it rarely works, please stop). Once the hacking mercifully relented thanks to the two-minute mark, the Clippers cruised to victory.
Blake Griffin scored his 9,000 on a free throw late in the fourth quarter, which put him in elite company as the fastest since Larry Bird to 9,000 points, 4,000 rebounds, and 1,500 assists. Though the 420 career games that it took BG to reach the mark doesn’t quite topple Bird from the record books (398 games), it certainly is a testament to his truly special all-around ability as a power forward.
The Clippers now own a 9-1 record, which, just to remind you sits atop the NBA standings. Though there were moments from the bench that brought back some difficult memories of years past, the starters showed just how difficult it is to beat this team when their shots are falling. They’ll surely welcome an off day tomorrow, as they did look fatigued at times, but the toughness and resolve that this team showed to knock off a very-talented Timberwolves team is going to be key if they hope to stay atop the Western Conference moving forward.
The Clippers will be back in action on Monday as they return home to face the Brooklyn Nets at Staples Center.