Timberwolves regain some swagger with emphatic win over Clippers

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A smile creased Rudy Gobert’s face as Bally Sports North sideline reporter Lea B. Olsen told him that she could see the LA Clippers hesitating to shoot the ball as they got into the paint to find him lurking near the rim.

“As they should,” Gobert told her. “As they should.”

The Minnesota Timberwolves wobbled through late January and were caught flat-footed in Chicago last week. They had seemingly lost the swagger that made them the league’s surprise success story in the first two months of the season. They were frustrated and flustered, unable to come up with answers for why they kept giving away leads to inferior teams.

The smile on Gobert’s face that came after a 121-100 beatdown of the red-hot Clippers in Los Angeles on Monday night told the story of a team rediscovering itself as the All-Star break approaches. In a showdown of the top two teams in the Western Conference, in the house of a Clippers squad that was 27-6 in its last 33 games and had become the trendy pick to go to the NBA Finals, the Wolves offered a resounding reminder to those ready to dismiss them as a flash in the pan.

They did so through the passing of Anthony Edwards, the offensive ingenuity of Karl-Anthony Towns and the defensive tandem of Gobert and Jaden McDaniels, who smothered the Clippers for the second time in as many meetings. Edwards had 23 points, eight assists and seven rebounds, rendering a 1 of 11 performance from 3-point range irrelevant. He now has 17 assists and just one turnover in the last two games, including a 129-105 win in Milwaukee on Thursday night.

“We did a great job of really making the right play,” coach Chris Finch told the media in Los Angeles after the game. “They threw a lot of different defensive looks at us, so it was kind of tough to sift through at times.”

The Clippers tried everything against the Wolves, most ominously going super small with Russell Westbrook at center with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Terance Mann, James Harden and Norm Powell out there during stretches with Westbrook to spread the bigger Wolves out and expose their slow-footedness. It worked for a time in the second quarter, when they closed the period on a 20-7 run to take a four-point lead into halftime.

But just as they did in defeating the Clippers at Target Center in January, the Wolves did not panic. They did not try to go small to match the Clippers’ quickness. Just as Finch discussed with president of basketball operations Tim Connelly in the summer of 2023 before they traded for Gobert, he stayed with the big lineup.

The Timberwolves came out of halftime and attacked the Clippers relentlessly, getting to the free-throw line for 13 attempts and outscoring LA 40-19. It wasn’t just on offense where the Wolves flexed their size advantage. They stifled the Clippers on defense, challenging every shot at the rim and contesting every jumper from beyond the arc.

“That’s how we’re built, part of our identity,” Finch said. “That’s what we have to lean into and it’s been great to us.”

Once the Wolves got to set their jaws, the Clippers were dead meat. While many have deemed the Clippers to be a nightmare matchup for a team that likes to deploy two bigs in the frontcourt, the Wolves have welcomed it in their first two meetings. LA excels in isolation with Leonard, George and Harden operating methodically in the half court.

But Edwards, McDaniels, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Gobert’s reply was to bring it on. They relish the one-on-one challenge and thrive in the half-court game. Harden, George and Leonard combined to shoot 18 of 46 (39 percent) from the field. The Clippers shot 40.5 percent as a team and were 21 for 47 in the paint.

“We got Jaden and Rudy, so pretty much let Jaden do what he do and send them down to Big Ru,” Edwards said of their defensive philosophy.

McDaniels turned in one of his best performances of the season. He scored 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting and toggled defensively between Harden, George and Leonard.

When he wasn’t swatting Clippers at the rim, he was running them down in the open floor, stripping Mann clean in semi-transition and throwing down a dunk in the third quarter to set the tone for a bruising, overpowering 12 minutes.

The Clippers shot 35 percent in the third quarter and turned the ball over five times. And when they tried to defend Edwards, Towns and Gobert, they were pummeled in the paint and at the rim. The Wolves got to the free-throw line at will, which more than made up for a shaky 3-point shooting. Gobert finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, Towns scored 10 of his 24 points in the third and Edwards made all six of his free throws during a 12-point quarter.

“That’s what we want to be,” Finch said. “We want to be big at the rim. We want to force our size on them. If they hesitate, that’s great.”

The defense that has led the NBA all season long sunk its teeth into the Clippers, holding them to their third-lowest scoring total of the season, swiping nine steals and blocking seven shots. Minnesota outscored LA 64-42 in the paint.

Alexander-Walker scored 15 points and Naz Reid had 11, including six points in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter to ensure the Wolves would not blow another double-digit lead. Newly acquired point guard Monte Morris also made his Wolves debut and was solid. He scored five points, grabbed two rebounds and had a steal in 18 minutes, 28 seconds.

Morris entered the game at the start of the second quarter, and it did not take long for him to make an impact. He knocked down his first shot, a left-wing 3 that came off one of those crushing Gobert screens that he said he was so eager to utilize. He also blocked a shot by Mann at the rim and kept the ball moving.

The Wolves (37-16) now lead the Oklahoma City Thunder by one game and the Clippers and Nuggets by 1.5 games in the West. They have beaten the short-handed Bucks (without Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton) and the Clippers in back-t0-back games, the first time in 778 regular season games that a team has beaten two teams on the road, back-to-back, with records of at least 15 games over .500. They are a league-best 23-11 against teams that are .500 or better.

They have two more games in Portland before the All-Star break, including the game on Tuesday night that already had Gobert issuing a warning of sorts to an inconsistent team.

Wins like this one show that the Timberwolves can play with anyone. But recent losses to the Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls lead many to remain skeptical of how they will perform in the playoffs. While many look at two games against the lowly Trail Blazers (15-37) as easy ways to cushion their lead in the West, Gobert knows better with this team.

“It’s one of those games when at the end of the season we look back and it can completely change where we end up,” Gobert said of the win over LA. “I’m proud of the guys the way we handled tonight. Now let’s see if we can handle success.”

— Law Murray in L.A. contributed to this report

(Photo of Anthony Edward: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)

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