When the news that Ricky Rubio would be inactive for this game hit the Twitter wires before tip, it would have been easy to write this off as a simple loss to a better team. The Los Angeles Clippers, while only 8-8 on the season, still have all the pieces of a dominant offensive team, and in many ways the fact that this game stayed close all the way to the end is an enormous credit to most of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who did eventually lose this game 107-99.
Before talking about the Wolves, credit must be given to Blake Griffin, who did what you would expect to a team who really has no one that can guard him (at least, while Karl-Anthony Towns had to deal with DeAndre Jordan). Griffin had 26 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, and he and Chris Paul absolutely killed the Wolves down the stretch when they pulled within six points with 4:41 left, and again with 1:38 left. The two combined for 17 of the Clippers' last 23 points, and the Wolves only really got stops when they resorted to Hack-A-DeAndre after the deficit had ballooned to twelve.
While Rubio missed the game, Nemanja Bjelica returned after missing the previous four games, and looked great, making all four of his shots for 10 points in almost 22 minutes of play. His return to the lineup, thankfully, should trigger a significant reduction in Adreian Payne's minutes. Payne, who had been passable the last couple of games, was absolutely atrocious, with a total of one rebound in counting stats. One wonders just how long he will stay above Damjan Rudez in the power forward pecking order. Based on Rudez's play recently, it seems like a simple decision.
This game was built on run after run. First the Timberwolves would go on a 6-0 run, then the Clippers would go on a 10-0 run, then back and forth. The issue was, the Timberwolves had fewer runs, and their first-half total of 37 points was well below par. The first half was frustrating, with many whistles going against the Wolves, enough that Sam Mitchell picked up his second technical foul of the year to prove a point. The whistles improved in the second half, but the Clippers often got the calls they are well known for requesting.
Another factor in this game was the unearthing of the good versions of both Lance Stephenson and Paul Pierce for the Clippers. Neither has started the year well, but Stephenson (9 points, averages almost 5) and Pierce (10 points, averages 4.5) both injected scoring and energy for the Clippers while their starters were off the floor. The margin of victory (eight points) was less than their combined scoring above their averages, which, if those are the two players to beat you, it is difficult to be too upset.
The frustration, however, continues to be rampant with Mitchell's fourth-quarter deployment of Towns. Mitchell did play Towns in the fourth (for the first time since last Monday), but brought him in after the deficit had sprung back to twelve from the six it had been with 4:41 left. Towns had a solid game with 17 points, 8 rebounds and 3 steals, and the combination of he and Gorgui Dieng worked relatively well during its short time on the floor. It just happened too late. That small stretch is exactly what makes this game feel like an opportunity missed rather than a simple loss.
Dieng, for what it's worth, is playing the best basketball he has played in a few months (the Afrobasket tournament aside). He had his second double-double in the last three games with 14 points and 10 rebounds, and is resembling the stat-stuffing 2013-14 version of Dieng more and more. His re-emergence as a useful basketball player is a welcome development, and lineups with he and Towns side-by-side are worth keeping an eye on.
Speaking of two players sharing the floor, the Wolves' last run in the fourth quarter came with Andre Miller and Zach LaVine sharing the backcourt, with LaVine at the shooting guard. Coincidence? You decide. LaVine (18 points and seven assists) and Miller (11 and 4) both had solid nights, and LaVine did a reasonable job on Chris Paul for most of the afternoon. Miller brings stability to the bench lineups, but they still have great difficulty scoring enough.
In one last bit of positivity, Andrew Wiggins continues to play excellently, with 21 points on 7-15 shooting (2-4 from 3). He looks supremely confident right now, and the looks he got from outside the arc were plays that need to become a bigger part of his (and the Wolves') offensive game. The Wolves as a whole had a nice night from beyond the arc, shooting 50% on 8-16, and while they still are not taking enough threes, the shots they do take are mainly open looks that should go in often.
The fact that the Wolves can be frustrated with this loss remains encouraging. They repeatedly fought back from double-digit deficits and would not give in to a team that clearly had better players than they did on the afternoon. This team is full of heart and has no quit, and after some of the losses that were endured last season, the frustration after this game is an almost satisfying feeling.