I haven’t spent a great deal of time watching Minnesota in recent weeks, so prior to the game, I logged onto John Krolik’s Cavs the Blog to get an impression of how the Clippers might recover from the meltdown in East Rutherford Wednesday night. While the Clippers were being roundly humiliated by the Nets, Minnesota loss in Cleveland, 109-95:
Of the Cavs’ 109 points, only 25 of them came on shots outside of 10 feet.
The Cavs made 25 of their 32 shots at the rim … Basically, the Cavs got 70 of their points at the rim, and converted 78% of their opportunities at the rim.
The Timberwolves are 9-38 coming into Friday night for a lot of reasons, but few more fatal than their inability to protect the basket. That’s a weakness that the Clippers can take advantage of and, sure enough, 15 percent of the Clippers’ total wins this season have come against Minnesota. Chris Kaman’s absence (sprained ankle he suffered in the New Jersey game) makes the task to exploit the Wolves inside a little more difficult, but the Clippers’ guards, Baron Davis and Eric Gordon, should be more than capable of penetrating through the Minnesota backcourt. Al Jefferson is slow from the weak side, and the Wolves don’t have anyone among the league’s top 40 shot blockers. It’s the kind of night when Baron and EJ should combine for 20 attempts from the stripe, with some production from Al Thornton at the 4 on the kinds of post-ups he was executing successfully before New Years, and Craig Smith’s usual high-percentage diet of Nerf ball against hapless defenders down low.
The Clippers come out of the tip and do virtually nothing in the paint. They try to hit Brian Skinner on a little baseline cut, and are successful one of two times. But neither Baron nor EJ can finish at the rim on their three attempts after slicing through the Wolves’ defense. Apart from Craig Smith taking Kevin Love off the dribble one-on-one, the Clippers settle for a slew of outside jumpers — a few of them open looks (i.e. 1st, 6:19/Gordon 3PA), but there’s a great deal of settling, an epidemic that continues into the second period. The Clippers finish the half 6-for-21 outside the paint.
More than the shot selection, the same malaise that plagued the Clippers Wednesday night hangs over the first half in Minneapolis. Over his first 100-odd games in the NBA, Gordon has never given off the impression that he’s a dense or low-IQ player who lacks court awareness. But for some inexplicable reason, he races the ball upcourt off a Minnesota bucket with 24.9 seconds remaining in the first quarter, then tries to skid a cross-court pass to Thornton. The ball caroms off Kevin Love and ends up with Minnesota. Naturally, Love hits a 3-pointer with 0:02.7 remaining in the quarter.
Eric’s stroke lacks confidence from the outside right now, and even the open looks have become difficult. In the past, he’d take the ball hard to the rack in response to a slump, but Corey Brewer plays considerably further off Gordon than most defenders. At 6-foot-8, Brewer can close on a jump shooter about as quickly as any guard in the league. By positioning himself a few feet off his assignment, Brewer simultaneously induces jump shots and deters a guy like Gordon from putting the ball on the deck. Gordon still gets to the line for nine attempts, but sinks only three of them. He finishes with 17 points (6-19 FGA, 2-9 3PA, 3-9 FTA), three assists, only two rebounds, and a pair of turnovers. The Clippers need a little more from EJ Friday night, but Brewer’s length bothers him on both ends of the floor.
Even with the anemic offensive effort, the Clippers should be able to beat Minnesota with defense. Minnesota is a team slowly learning a new system without the personnel to run it effectively. This dynamic translates into an offensive efficiency rating of 97.3, ahead of only New Jersey. But just as the Clippers yielded a historically bad Nets team its most efficient offensive night of the season (110.8), they cough up 111 points in 100 possessions to Minnesota, its 3rd-most efficient performance since opening night.
There are games, usually at Staples Center, when the Clippers’ defense hums like a hive — the traps are early and aggressive, the perimeter rotations are sound, Marcus Camby has things covered within an eight foot radius of the basket. Tonight isn’t one of those nights. Camby somehow records five blocks, but his bruised ribs aren’t allowing him to lurch from the weak side in the manner he prefers. It’s apparent early on that Brian Skinner isn’t going to give the Clippers what they need, which is a little speed and mobility to counter the Minnesota spacing and movement — as disorganized as it is at times.
Brewer gives both Gordon and Ricky Davis trouble on the weak side as they drifted middle, and Ryan Hollins takes full advantage of the Clippers’ going small in Kaman’s absence. Hollins’ 19 points match his season high.
But the froth on those 111 points comes in transition, where Minnesota racks up 29 points. You might assume that the Clippers cough the ball up a bunch, but the Clips turn it over only 12 times in 100 possessions. What kills the Clips are the long misses that the Wolves quickly generate into fast break buckets.
The Clippers put up a fight in the third quarter behind Baron Davis. His 23 points are the most points in a quarter in Clippers’ history. Here’s how he does it:
Baron’s virtuoso performance is only modest consolation. Friday night is the kind of game that can crater a team into oblivion, coming as it does on the heels of a loss to one of the worst teams of the modern NBA era. Respectability is a precarious thing for a team. The season could be lost for the Clippers in a hurry unless there’s a collective acknowledgment that these losses (a) indicate that even bad defensive teams can stop if you make yourself easy to guard, (b) confirm that you have to contest everything on the defensive end, no matter how inept you might think Keyon Dooling and Ryan Hollins are, and (c) don’t disqualify you from future success.
The losses are in the books. Move on.