Wolves-Clippers games always seem to have a peculiar hum. Perhaps it’s their interlocking histories and their penchant for duplicating one another’s rosters (like, literally–see: Gomes, Foye, Smith, Telfair, Jaric, Cassell et. al.). Perhaps it’s their shared legacies of baffling mismanagement. Maybe it’s just a sense of futility that has characterized both teams; when they face one another, their common penchant for goofy mediocrity, for playing just below the level of their opponent, is multiplied exponentially.
For whatever reason, Wolves-Clips games have always carried the sense of occurring in some other, more remote, more depressing, basketball universe than the one we see on SportsCenter. I’m thinking of a game in December of 2008 in which the Wolves played some of the most awful, unattractive, melancholic basketball I have maybe ever witnessed and which signaled the end of the Randy Wittman era. Or the game later that same year in which the Clips happily returned the favor. Or two seasons ago, in which the Clippers, deeply mired in the Mike Dunleavy/Baron Davis era, put on performances of such wasted, schizophrenic, shot-hoisting unwatchability that it seems inconceivable that their opponent could ever manage to lose. And yet lose the Wolves did. Even last November, what was a nominally exciting game, capped off by Mike Beasley’s buzzer-beater, was characterized in these very pages as “a carnival of horrors: hurried execution, careless passes, poorly chosen jumpers, missed layups.” Also, rotten defense.
Friday night’s game shared that freaky energy, but the sense of purpose and energy, of sheer competence was unprecedented. It isn’t that the game was cleanly played. Both teams wasted opportunities, committed outrageous turnovers and missed wide open looks. But the second half in particular was played with a speed and intensity that carried the unmistakable feeling of consequence.This game was clearly meaningful to both teams; and, unlike in past years, both teams were graced with players–Mo Williams, Chauncey Billups, even Ricky Rubio–who know what to do with meaningful games.
For me, the most encouraging element of the game was the way in which the Wolves responded to the Clips’ ridiculous early shot-making. The Timberwolves actually defended reasonably well in the first half. They prioritized preventing guard penetration by going under screens. But Mo Williams, Randy Foye and Billups took advantage of that space by hitting some truly cold-hearted shots. Conversely, the Wolves were prevented by the Clippers’ pressure defense from gaining any traction in the lane and were uncharacteristically cold from outside.
In the past, double-digit leads like this–produced by the normal fluctuations of NBA shooting efficiency–would have buried the Wolves. The players would have hung their heads and what was solid defense beaten by better shooting would careen into a car wreck of resigned effort, blown assignments and easy layups. But in this game, the Wolves responded by doubling down on their effort. They fought over screens, pressured the ball and attacked passing lanes, in the process revitalizing their O with turnovers and transition baskets. They never allowed their effort and focus to be deterred by the occasionally disheartening events on the court. The Wolves were not always poised and composed late in the game, but in this very important way they were more mature than they’ve seemed in years.
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One last thing. Last night I offered that the real genius of Rick Adelman’s final play call was in matching the shooter–here, Kevin Love–up against a player, DeAndre Jordan, who was not accustomed to defending the perimeter. But at Truehoop, Kevin Arnovitz suggests that the misdirection of Derrick Williams’ curl, combined with the double screen set on Jordan by Wayne Ellington and Rubio may have mystified the Clippers into failing to switch onto the popping Love. Although Arnovitz points out that even Vinny Del Negro was unsure after the game whether his team was intended to switch or fight over screens, Jordan’s response–“I got triple-screened, and he made the shot…I have to try to keep a hand in his face and make it tough on him”–suggests that the responsibility for contesting the shot was Jordan’s.
But, in either case, the call was brilliant and the Clippers were unprepared for the actions. By the way, my approach to writing this game has been pretty holistic. You can get a really clear, detailed breakdown of the game’s last few possessions by D.J. Foster over at ClipperBlog. Although I’d be a little less harsh on Chauncey for his late defensive performance–I think, for instance, he can be forgiven for not closing out on the 0-10 Rubio, considering that the Clips had been begging Ricky to shoot all night–the entire post is highly recommended.