Clippers overcome sluggish start to defeat Timberwolves

When all 7 feet 2 of Rudy Gobert toppled over and into Marcus Morris Sr. underneath the basket late in the fourth quarter, Clippers players all too familiar with injuries instinctively rushed over to their teammate sprawled on the court.

Their concern was short-lived once Morris began performing push-ups on the court and the crowd cheered the unexpected twist.

Given the way the Clippers shot to start Wednesday night at a Arena full of empty seats and devoid of energy, there had been reason to check their pulse too.

Instead, they eventually showed signs of life and pushed away Minnesota with ease in the fourth quarter of a 99-88 victory.

Tied at 69-69 with 9 minutes 58 seconds to play, the Clippers outscored the Timberwolves by 16 during the next seven minutes to win their third consecutive game and improve to 17-13.

Kawhi Leonard finished with 19 points and eight rebounds, and Paul George finished with 17 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds, his first triple-double since Feb. 11, 2019, when he played for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

But it was Nicolas Batum who came off the bench on his 34th birthday to play unsung hero, the Clippers outscoring Minnesota by 30 points in his 31 minutes, an almost incredible number in a game as low scoring as this. Batum started the second half, a crucial switch made while the Clippers desperately needed a spark.

The Clippers made 38% of their shots and 30% of their 46 three-pointers, only two shy of matching their season high for attempts. The Timberwolves were abysmal from deep, making four of 22 to continue a Clippers’ defensive stand that has continued since the second half of Saturday’s win at Washington.

The Clippers want to hold teams to 100 points or fewer, a hard assignment in the modern NBA, coach Tyronn Lue said. But they have been on that pace, holding opponents to 25 points or fewer in 10 consecutive quarters.

“We have so many guys who can play defense in different ways against different guys,” Batum said. “We know it’s a long process, but we’re starting to build something special.”

Two nights after a burst of energy from the opening tip amid a raucous atmosphere paced their 20-point win against league-leading Boston, the Clippers resembled the arena crowd for much of the first quarter — half there. When two fouls led Leonard to check out seven minutes in, he had scored all four of his team’s points amid its two-for-15 shooting start.

Leonard’s foul trouble forced Lue, a few minutes early, to put into action the plan he has settled on as it pertains to his pair of All-Stars. Their minutes are no longer overlapping as if a perfect eclipse. Instead they will be staggered at times such as the end of the first and third quarters as part of Lue’s search for “lineups that work, and also being able to play through one of those guys at different times.”

Clippers guard Paul George (13) shoots during the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday at Arena.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“Both of those guys, when they both are on the floor, it’s kind of hard to call plays for both guys,” Lue said. “But they do a good job with that. But now, PG has his unit. Kawhi has his unit. And we can play through both.”

Playing through George helped the Clippers get back into a game they trailed in by nine after his 10 first-quarter points. If staggering his stars is one tactic Lue has committed to, so are the center-less lineups the Clippers are turning to with more regularity with the team nearing full health. It extended to the reserves. The second quarter opened with a lineup whose tallest players were Batum and Robert Covington and the Clippers stayed even with Minnesota until Leonard returned seven minutes before halftime. They stayed small even when Gobert checked back in for Minnesota — an echo of the Clippers’ plan to negate Gobert’s defensive impact during the 2021 postseason, when he patrolled the interior for the Utah Jazz.

Covington played 19 minutes and he was featured extensively with Batum to “spread Rudy out as much as possible,” Lue said.

Playing without a center became a necessity after Ivica Zubac exited after 17 minutes because of discomfort in his left knee. Lue said he did not know whether Zubac would play Thursday against Phoenix.

Such small lineups have been better defensively than offensively, in Lue’s estimation. But the Clippers’ offensive shortcomings Wednesday couldn’t be pinned on those lineups alone because nothing worked during a first half in which they mustered 38 points and did not convert any of Minnesota’s eight turnovers into points.

With Gobert’s presence making the Clippers reticent to drive, they attempted 25 three-pointers, matching their season-high total for a first half, but made only five. It was supposed to add levity when the Clippers mascot scaled a 24-foot-tall ladder at midcourt during a first-half break in play and began firing one-handed shots at a hoop, with one of about a dozen going in; instead it grew uncomfortably close to mirroring reality.

But when the Timberwolves couldn’t shoot straight either, it left an opening. The Clippers made five three-pointers in the third quarter alone and their defense ensured Minnesota would never come close again.

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