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Game Preview #39: Wolves vs. Clippers

Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Paul George and the red hot Clippers visit Anthony Edwards and Minnesota at Target Center for a Sunday night showdown.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves are facing the Los Angeles Clippers for the first time this season, and the timing could not be more interesting. The Clippers are one of the hottest teams in the league right now, winning eight of their last ten games, and they provide some tricky matchups for the Timberwolves. A few days and a blowout win removed from a grueling stretch of games; this matchup should be an incredibly fun one.


Game Info

  • Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (27-11) vs Los Angeles Clippers (25-13)
  • When: Sunday, January 14 at 6:00 PM CT
  • Where: Target Center — Minneapolis, MN
  • TV: Bally Sports North (Michael Grady, Jim Petersen and Lea B. Olsen)
  • Radio: Wolves Radio App, KFAN FM 100.3
  • Line: Wolves -1, Total: 224 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)

Injury Report

Updated as of Sunday 1/14 at 4:20 PM CT:

Minnesota

OUT:

  • Jaylen Clark (right achilles tendon rupture rehab)

AVAILABLE:

  • Anthony Edwards (left knee contusion)

Los Angeles

OUT:

  • Moussa Diabate (right hand metacarpal fracture)

What To Watch For

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Clippers’ Big-3 Are Rolling

They got off to a shaky start, but the Clippers big-3 are looking like a dominant force. When all three of James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George are on the court, they have a net rating of +11.1 (95th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass). What’s so daunting about this trio is how effectively they are used and rotated.

L.A. has all three of Harden, George, and Leonard on the court for 32.5% of their possessions. Conversely, only 3.8% of their possessions come with all three off the court. Even more impressive, the remaining duo still performs at dominant levels when one member of the star trio leaves the court.

When Harden and Leonard are on the court while George is off, the Clippers have a net rating of +6.1. When you swap Leonard for George with Harden also on the court, their net rating jumps to +11.4. When Harden takes a seat and Leonard and George share the floor, their net rating skyrockets to an absurd +25.2. No matter how the group rotates, they are winning every minute by a lot.

Minnesota Timberwolves v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Funnel Everything to the Rim

The Timberwolves have a very modern defense where they funnel everything to the midrange. They allow the third fewest shots at the rim and the ninth fewest from beyond the arc. Minnesota also allows the second-most shots from the mid-range. Overall, the Wolves have done a tremendous job defending the mid-range, as they have the second lowest midrange defensive field goal percentage of 39.7%. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen teams methodically dissect them from the midrange, which is exactly what the Clippers do.

When you look at the Clippers’ shot frequency distribution, you’d never think they’d have the fifth best offensive rating of 120.9. Los Angeles ranks 25th in at-rim shot frequency, third in midrange frequency, and 18th in 3-point frequency. Not exactly the signs of an elite offense; that is, until we look at the scoring efficiency. The Clippers rank 13th in at-rim accuracy, fourth in the midrange, and second from deep. They have some of the most elite shot makers in the league and don’t struggle to find their spots.

We’ve seen elite mid-range scorers have their way with this defense before, and this game could quickly turn into the same. To combat their mid-range assassins, the Timberwolves will need to adjust their coverage a bit. One alternative is for Rudy Gobert to play a little higher in drop coverage to try and bait ball-handlers into trying to drive past him. This will ask much more of Gobert on defense and leave him vulnerable to giving up lobs to the roller and potential foul trouble.

Another alternative is for the on-ball defenders to go under screens more frequently and pack the paint. This will give up more looks from 3 to the Clippers, which can get dangerous, but pull-up 3s aren’t what they typically look for. Of their 3-point shots, only 36.3% of them are pull-ups and they are shooting only 36.7% on them. The Clippers much prefer to get in the mid-range and then kick out to shooters rather than hunt on-ball opportunities.

The final — and more likely — coverage option is for Gobert to drop really aggressively to the rim to encourage drives. The key to this is that the point-of-attack defenders have to work their butt off without fouling. They have to constantly pursue the ball, navigate screens, and stay connected to eliminate the midrange opportunities.

Portland Trail Blazers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Don’t Be Afraid to Push in Transition

Despite some of the athletes on the Timberwolves, they rarely run in transition. In fact, few teams run in transition less than they do as they rank 24th with a frequency of just 13.8%. What’s fascinating, though, is that they almost always score when they do decide to run in transition. So far, the Wolves rank second in the league in transition points per play with 1.348. This Clippers matchup could be a great opportunity for them to push the pace a little more than usual.

Getting into high paced shoot-outs is essentially the exact opposite approach to what the Timberwolves have implemented all season. It’s a really fine line to walk, but if they can occasionally push their offense while also limiting L.A.’s transition opportunities, they could set themselves up for a big win. We know that the Wolves don’t love to run in transition, but the Clippers have let teams push the pace rather frequently.

Los Angeles allows opponents to run in transition 17.0% of the time, which ranks 16th. Conversely, Minnesota ranks eighth at just 16.2%. On top of that, the Clippers’ transition defense has been pretty awful allowing 1.55 points per play (19th). When opponents get a steal, 73.7% of the time it results in a transition play where they score 1.371 points per play. Those numbers rank 29th and 18th, respectively. Even more damning, Clippers are allowing opponents a transition play off of live rebounds 31.6% of the time (21st) and are surrendering 1.285 points per play (26th). Regardless of the situation, the Clippers are allowing teams to consistently get easy buckets in transition.

The tricky part of this is that the Timberwolves would still need to limit the Clippers transition opportunities. The Clippers are eager to run as 17.5% (10th) of their possessions are in transition where they are scoring 1.103 points per play (20th). Interestingly, the Timberwolves have steadily climbed to being one of the best transition defenses in the league, mainly because they’ve stopped crashing the offensive glass. The Timberwolves’ defense currently allows opponents to run in transition only 16.2% (eighth) of the time and score 1.060 (fifth) points per play. If the Timberwolves can push the pace with their offense, while also turning it into a half-court game on defense, they put themselves in a great spot to win.