LOS ANGELES – Perhaps this should be taken as a warning.
Kawhi Leonard has been saying it for a while, during the recent trip to the Grammy Awards: his Clippers let themselves be carried away by their talent in their journey in pursuit of the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Monday night, they ran into another contender and the Minnesota Timberwolves bruised them, winning 121-100 and outscoring the home team 59-36 over the final 18½ minutes of the game.
The Clippers could have returned to first place in the West, but instead fell to third place, 1½ games behind the Timberwolves, a half-game behind Oklahoma City and six percentage points ahead of Denver. There are still 30 games left in the regular season – hell, the Clippers have one more game, Wednesday night against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco, before the All-Star break – so it’s still too early to make any sort of move match. conclusions.
But when there are trends, it’s best to address them quickly and directly.
“We kind of gained some talent, you know,” Leonard said. “When you play better teams, (defenders) are in the passing lanes. These isolated shots, these misses are getting stronger and stronger.
“So like Coach said, we have to do a better job of listening to him and trying to execute.”
Ty Lue, the aforementioned coach, noted that while the Clippers led 53-50 at halftime, it was due to a 20-6 run at the end of the half and particularly the back-to-back three-pointers by Paul George and James Harden. in the last 25.2 seconds. The flaws were there. The Clippers were struggling on both ends against Minnesota bigs Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert – a 64-42 advantage in points in the paint that night spoke volumes – and the ball wasn’t moving on the offensive end as he does it. when they play well.
“Just the physicality and attention to detail, they were better,” Lue said.
“You know, if we don’t make quick decisions and play the game the right way, they’re going to make you look bad offensively. And that’s what they did, you know, the whole game. You know, I thought their length was bothering us, like holding the ball and being stagnant really hurt us. And if we’re not going to (move the ball) side to side and make quick decisions, they’re the number one defensive team in the league for a reason. So you have to make quick decisions and be smart. And we certainly can’t turn the ball over like we did at the start of the third quarter (two turnovers and two misses on the first four possessions).
Ivica Zubac, on a minutes restriction upon returning from injury, played 22:36. Mason Plumlee played 8:55 and Daniel Theis 4:54, and the Clippers used small lineups for a quarter of the night, with Lue searching for answers as the night wore on. Towns finished with 24 points in 27:02, Gobert had 17 points and 10 rebounds, including five on the offensive glass, in 33:21. And Anthony Edwards (23 points), Nickell Alexander-Walker (15) and Jaden McDaniels (11) seemed to treat the Clippers’ defenders like blue pylons for much of the night, among the Timberwolves who roamed the lane at will.
Was this a warning sign?
“Yeah, I hope so,” Lue said. “We’ve talked about it and we just need to do it more often, more consistently. I think we have good one-on-one players. But at the end of the day, you just have to be more consistent, you know, to get to the second and third actions like we did (before). Tonight was just a tough game for us.
Before the match, Lue stressed that his players should not wait for the perfect shot against such a big and defensively good team.
“Going back to our first game (against Minnesota), we turned away a lot of good shots,” he said. “And when you’re playing against a good defensive team, if you don’t take the first open shot, you know the best shot, so you’ll get a worse shot later in the shot clock. So we didn’t do a good job of taking our first available shot. … (And) the last thing is to make quick decisions. You can’t hold it and allow them to load because they are so big and have so much lift that it’s hard to get into gaps and seams. So you have to make quick decisions: shoot it, drive it or move it. So we have to be better with that tonight.
This was not the case.
The Clippers have won 32 of their last 41 games to move into first place in the conference. But a loss to Cleveland on the Grammy trip — their only loss during the seven-game trip — exposed some of the big problems. And they are now 0-2 against the Timberwolves, losing 109-105 in Minneapolis in January.
“Our last four games (wins at Atlanta and against Detroit, and losses to New Orleans and now to Minnesota) have been up and down, the ball has been pretty sticky,” Leonard said, referring to the lack of movement of the ball. “Obviously these guys have great presence in the paint. But… I think it’s with us, you know what I mean? We have to be better at driving another player and just getting open shots.
“…I don’t think it’s a wake-up game. I think, you know, there will be games like this in the future as well. I mean, it’s your turn to write. But like I said, we need to look at what we’re doing, the things we’re not doing well, and try to improve before it becomes real.
The potential is there.
“Here we are,” Leonard said. “We won games, as everyone saw. And like I said before, there are ways we can improve, and that’s the scary thing. …Now is the time to turn things around.
And even if Lue can state his case — and, as we’ve noted, he’s pretty good in the NBA version of speaking truth to power, being pointed out when necessary with his players — making these changes is ultimately account the responsibility of the players.
“We play the game,” Leonard said. “So we have to do it.”
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