The Target Center’s layout is such that the house and visitors’ changing rooms are separated on the ground floor by only a short stretch of corridor lined with huge Timberwolves portraits.
The players who stormed into the Minnesota locker room late Friday night were nothing like their smiling, growling alter egos. Among them was former Clippers quarterback Patrick Beverly, who looked low, avoiding eye contact with his former teammates in front. At this moment, Nicholas Batum made his way through the line of coaches and staff, everyone smiled and pounded with their fists.
They celebrated the comeback that Beverly used to do so, the Clippers’ 104–84 win, which marked their second straight win over Minnesota and their third overall win, improving to 4–4. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Clippers are only the fourth team in 25 seasons behind at least 20 before winning at least the same number.
“It’s good that we’re comfortable in this position,” said Clippers striker Paul George. “But you know, we just have to prevent it when we can.”
When star bigman Carl-Anthony Towns was last out after 20 points and eight rebounds, he punctuated his replacement with a series of sideline curses. Most of the crowd had left long before that, in the middle of the last quarter.
The Clippers rallied against Golden State and Memphis to open this season, but were never able to complete their work. It was completely different.
“It means a lot to our guys, to our character,” said coach Tyrone Liu. “We always knew we could win, and it started last year and we believed that we would find a way to win.”
Two nights after 21 threes, the Clippers have scored only six of 28 deep shots and have hit 40% overall. George’s 21 points were achieved in 20 shots and he missed all seven three-pointers. George also made 11 rebounds on six assists and three interceptions. In one game, after making eight assists, he had six losses in the middle of the third quarter, but did not make another in the last 11 minutes.
Assistant Brian Shaw told Lue ahead of reporting that George looked physically “flat” and had to pay the bill for his 35-minute game workload. However, the same thing happened with the “low energy” start of the entire team, as described by center Ivica Zubac. By the time Minnesota (3-5) had nine of its first 19 triplets, the Clippers had not yet tapped into one of the depths, making their 20-point deficit as much a mathematical problem as it was an energy problem.
But it only took 12 minutes to fill the 20-point gap. Minnesota’s 27 points after halftime is the fourth-lowest second-half point in Clippers history.
“This could be our identity this year – to be a defensive team,” Zubats said. “I think we had some really good defensive games and some of them we could have played better, but I think we are proud of the defense and we know that without Kavha. [Leonard]”It’s going to be difficult to win matches, but if we can stop, get out and run more, get open shots, we’ll give ourselves a better chance of winning.”
Each stop on defense that led to a season-record 61 rebounds, including Zubak’s 14 rebounds, seemed to nudge the Clippers, each of which provided an opportunity to turn the game into an opposite-direction encounter after the break. The Clippers beat Minnesota 15-3 in transition mode, and the difference would have been even more exaggerated if not for their seven-out-of-13 transition. It was the pace at which Liu convinced his team to play when, in three games this season, he showed them possession videos with only a handful of Clippers running back. Playing at half speed was wiping out their small ball advantage, and he made it clear to them.
Much of the rally depended on the play of the two Clippers, whose start this season was unstable.
Zubak’s inner defenses were “phenomenal,” Liu said, the result of what Zubak said was improved health and the need to defend himself better on the ring.
In the first 16 minutes of Eric Bledsoe, the team lost by 20 points, and he finished with plus two, only the second time this season he finished with a plus or minus. But Bledsoe was in the middle of the third quarter, and he put his hand back as quarterback for a half-court pass that Reggie Jackson turned into a layup by cutting the deficit to one. Bledsoe made only one of six shots in the third quarter, but that was at odds with his pace, which helped the Clippers win the quarter by 13 points.