This was an extraordinarily weird game. It started out with a scorching hot Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, who somehow scored the Clippers’ first 21 points before Montrezl Harrell got on the board. The rest of the starters played defense and got the ball to the superstars, and that was about it. Doc Rivers, for maybe the first time all season, employed a true stagger of his star players, taking out Paul George halfway through the first quarter for Rodney McGruder, then subbing him back in for Kawhi a few minutes later. Still, even with the bench, only Kawhi, George, and Trez scored in the first period.
The second quarter went much the same way. The Clippers bench, spearheaded by George, ran their offense almost exclusively through PG, and it paid off – he was simply unstoppable going to the basket, with no Wolves capable of standing in front of him. The Clippers built up a nice double-digit lead, but it slowly decayed over the course of the period, as the Wolves loaded up heavily on Kawhi and George and dared other Clippers to beat them. Kawhi was able to scratch a few trips to the free throw line, but that was about all the offense the Clips could muster, and they held just a seven-point lead at the half.
The third quarter was almost all Clippers. George came out scorching hot, scoring seven quick points to get the Clippers back into a double-digit lead. The Clippers continually expanded their lead, forcing Karl-Anthony Towns out of the game with four fouls and clamping down on the Wolves’ offense. The Clippers’ own offense slowed down too, but Moe Harkless and Ivica Zubac finally got in on the action a bit, and PG and Kawhi continued to chip in as well. At one point, the Clippers had a 27-point advantage late in the period, but the Wolves cut it to 21 entering the 4th and had noticeably picked up their energy.
The fourth quarter, however, was nearly an unmitigated disaster. Karl-Anthony Towns got to work, and roasted the smaller Montrezl Harrell inside and out. Meanwhile, Jeff Teague found his aggression and relentlessly attacked the paint, as did Andrew Wiggins. With no true rim protector in the game for the Clippers, their interior defense sagged, and the Wolves seemingly scored on every possession. On the other end, the Clippers were a horror show, with Kawhi in particular making absolutely awful decisions with the ball in his hands (he finished with eight turnovers) and missing easy shots. In the end, while the Clippers never really turned things around, they got just enough buckets (a couple huge ones from Harrell to make up for his lapses on the other end) and stops to secure a heart-pounding 124-117 victory.
Kawhi and PG Go Off: This was a historic night for the Clippers’ wing superstar duo, as the two combined for 88 points and each hit the 40-point mark. They set numerous marks along the way (too many to list here), looking much like the most talented duo in Clippers’ history in the process. Both had their bad moments, particularly Leonard’s 4th quarter, but it’s understandable considering the offensive burden placed on them in this one. George’s shooting remains a marvel, and Doc Rivers has found increasingly effective plays to spring him open for threes. Kawhi, meanwhile, is a machine at getting to the line, and he also secured some big rebounds in this one. Both guys were also locked in on defense, and it’s pretty impressive what they’re able to do on that end when fully engaged – not for nothing have they made a couple handfuls of All-Defense teams between them. In short, this is what Clippers’ fans (and the Clippers front office) envisioned when these two players were paired this summer, and best of all, both Kawhi and George look healthy and ready to play big minutes. It’s still incredible that they’re Clippers.
The Zu-Trez conundrum: Ivica Zubac was a +23 in 15 minutes, and looked it. He set solid screens offensively, scored on the couple times he got the ball near the rim, and played solid defense, especially around the rim. Montrezl Harrell, despite scoring 18 points on 13 shots, was a -16 in 32 minutes, and it was easy to see why. Trez, although an excellent player having a fantastic season, is just too small to guard the biggest and best big men in the NBA, and Karl-Anthony Towns is such a player. Zubac is not exactly a KAT-stopper, but he would have been a much better option in the 4th quarter when Towns was burning the Clippers down. Now, Trez made some huge plays, scoring several baskets in the period when the Clippers desperately needed them, and was their only other source of offense outside of PG and Kawhi. However, Zu needs more minutes, and Doc’s reliance on Trez will hurt the Clippers at some point this season. It’s tough to take Trez out of the game because he does so much, but there are just times where Zu’s size and defensive presence are needed.
Derrick Walton Jr. Making Plays: Derrick Walton Jr., the Clippers 15th man to start the season, played 30 minutes tonight. Yes, Lou Williams, Pat Beverley, and Landry Shamet were out, and Rodney McGruder was on a minutes restriction, but Walton’s playing time both reflects his own play as well as the failings of Jerome Robinson (and to a lesser extent Terance Mann). Walton, despite getting burned a few times by Teague, made some exceptional defensive plays, including forcing a crucial late 4th quarter turnover on Wiggins in transition, and generally made correct rotations while playing tight individual defense. On offense, he got the offense into sets (such as they were), spaced the floor well (hitting his only three), and made a couple nice passes. In short, he doesn’t make mistakes and can provide a little something on both ends of the court. Robinson, who received a mere three minutes tonight, has clearly been passed in the rotation by Walton, and Mann appears to have been as well (he played 18 minutes and had some nice rebounds and assists but was super hesitant otherwise offensively). Walton’s rise in just a week has been pretty incredible, but he will probably be in the rotation until the Clippers are fully healthy again.
Rodney McGruder Returns: After missing a couple weeks with a hamstring injury, Rodney McGruder came back tonight when the Clippers desperately needed help at the guard positions. Clearly rusty, McGruder was on a minutes restriction and didn’t do much of note, but it was good to see him back on the court, especially with the Clippers playing again tomorrow and Kawhi Leonard likely sitting out for load management.
Well, the Clippers play tomorrow against the pitiful Bulls (they scored 73 points tonight!) and will presumably be quite short-handed again. As bad as the Bulls are, the Clippers will be in a very tough position in a back-to-back on the road with so many injuries, so it will be a good test for them.