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Clippers Look to Stay the Course Against Wolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves host the L.A. Clippers for their final matchup of the season.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Picture

The L.A. Clippers and the Minnesota Timberwolves are both reaching towards different goals at this point in the season.

For the Clippers, a team that has endured its fair share of injuries, maintaining health and re-establishing chemistry are of the utmost importance with only 19 games remaining. Establishing home court advantage heading into the postseason would also be nice. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the team’s two most important contributors, have missed a combined 41 games and have only been back together for the last 7. The Clippers, despite winning their last 2 games, have looked out of sorts at both ends of the floor and are running out of time to get back into a rhythm. For a team that has to contend with the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference, as well as the added pressure of J.J. Redick, Paul, and Griffin all entering free agency this summer, their championship goals have become loftier than ever.

For the Timberwolves, a team that hasn’t even been to the postseason since 2004, during the Kevin Garnett era, a playoff spot is still within their grasp. This underscores their desire to win any game they can, tonight included. This creates trap-game potential for the Clippers, who must remain vigilant despite the Wolves’ losing record.

The Antagonist

The Wolves, despite their long postseason drought, certainly have a chance this year at playing beyond 82 games. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, two ever-rising young stars, have been able to develop under the tutelage of head coach Tom Thibodeau. The season-ending injuries of Zach LaVine and Nikola Pekovic, as well as the slow development of rookie Kris Dunn, have all put a bit of a damper on their success thus far. But they are just 3.5 games behind Denver for 8th place in the Western Conference, and a postseason push during the final stretch of the year would be a success for the franchise. They’d almost certainly be first-round fodder, regardless of the opponent, but the opportunity alone would be great experience for a very young and talented squad.

Make it a Shootout

In this particular matchup, the Clippers are a far-superior team from beyond the arc. The Clippers rank 11th in the league in 3-point shots attempted per game (27.3), 9th in 3-point shots made per game (10.3), and 4th in 3-point percentage (37.6%). In addition, every rotation player outside of DeAndre Jordan and Brandon Bass is capable of shooting the three-ball, providing great potential to spread the floor.

Conversely, the Wolves rank 29th, second-to-last, in both 3-point shots attempted per game (21.9) and 3-point shots made per game (7.7). They also shoot just 35.1% from beyond the arc, good enough for 20th in the NBA. And these averages are even further offset by the injured LaVine’s great 3-point shooting; LaVine led the team in both attempts (6.6) and makes (2.6), shooting 38.7%. Wiggins is the closest to LaVine in attempts per game, but with just 3.5. And nobody on the roster has even reached 40% shooting from beyond the arc.

The Clippers must capitalize upon their shooting depth and make sure they can play at a higher pace during the course of the game to increase their number of offensive possessions.

Taking Care of the Ball

The Clippers do a fairly good job of taking care of the ball. They rank 7th in the league in turnovers per game (13.2), 7th in turnover percentage (13.3%), and 8th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.71). Conversely, the Wolves rank 20th in turnovers per game (14.4), 21st in turnover percentage (14.7%), and 12th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.63) despite ranking top-10 in assists, assist percentage, and assist ratio.

Turnovers are inevitable in any matchup, but the Clippers must avoid any unforced ones to minimize the potential damage, in particular, those as a result of errant passes, mishandling the ball, or stepping out of bounds. The Wolves are a decent team at stealing the ball as well, averaging 7.9 steals per game, and possess great length at nearly every position. Gorgui Dieng, Towns, and Wiggins all have great wingspan and can cover a lot of ground defensively as a starting front court. Luc Mbah a Moute, Griffin, and Jordan will have to think quickly and know where to pass at all times to avoiding trap and double-team situations.

Rebounding Focus

Neither the Clippers nor the Wolves are great rebounding teams, but there are some numbers that stand out heading into tonight’s matchup. The Clippers and Wolves rank 19th and 20th in the league, respectively, in total rebounds per game. The Wolves, however, rank 6th in rebound percentage (51.5%) while the Clippers rank 19th (49.8%). When we split the focus into two categories, offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding, it paints a much clearer picture. The Wolves are a far better offensive rebounding team, ranking 6th in offensive rebounds per game (11.6) and ranking 3rd in offensive rebounding percentage (27.3%). The Clippers, are a better defensive rebounding team, ranking 12th in defensive rebounds per game (33.8) while ranking middle-of-the-pack in defensive rebounding percentage (76.5%). Also, the Wolves are second to last in defensive rebounds per game (31.6).

This all means that the Clippers must do two things very well: limit second-chance opportunities for the Wolves, and go for second-chance opportunities in their own half court by grabbing offensive boards. The Wolves don’t rank very high in steals or in Pace, so the fast break game is not a major concern as it has been with more recent matchups. This is a game where not relinquishing offensive boards may not be a huge detriment to their transition defense. Marreese Speights, Griffin, and Jordan must all be very active in and around the paint in case Clippers shots don’t fall. During the Wolves’ half court sets, the Clippers front court must do a good job of boxing out Dieng and Towns down low, while the guards stay active watching for longer misses.

Final Thoughts

This certainly has trap-game potential for the Clippers. It’s a road game, and though they are riding a two-game win streak, those wins were largely thanks to some timely heroics from Jamal Crawford, who has been ice-cold much of the season. This may be another great game for some of the Clippers reserves to step up. Wesley Johnson could see some extended minutes due to his size matchup against the Wolves’ length, and it would be nice to see Alan Anderson get some minutes because of his defensive capabilities. Towns is a force to be reckoned with and Wiggins has the potential to score plentifully in a very short span of time. Expect a Clippers win, but expect it to be a close and competitive matchup.