A huge game by Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who scored a career-high 29 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, couldn’t offset a monster game by Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns, who scored 27 of his 37 points in the second half, and the Clippers had their seven-game winning streak snapped.
Here are five things we learned from their 104-101 loss to the Timberwolves on Thursday night:
1. Blake Griffin could be back as soon as next week. The power forward, sidelined since he had surgery on his right knee on Dec. 20, underwent stress tests and sprinted on the court at full speed at Thursday morning’s shoot-around.
Coach Doc Rivers said Griffin, who averaged a team-high 21.2 points and 8.8 rebounds in 26 games, will “do some contact work” at the team’s Playa del Rey training facility on Friday, but the Clippers aren’t practicing, so Griffin will not be able to scrimmage.
Asked if there was a chance that Griffin could play on the next trip to Denver (Saturday), Atlanta (Monday), Philadelphia (Tuesday), Golden State (Jan. 28) and Phoenix (Feb. 1), Rivers said, “Yeah, there is.”
2. The Clippers definitely missed point guard Chris Paul, who underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb on Wednesday, but Austin Rivers and Raymond Felton did a solid job in Paul’s place.
Rivers had 20 points on seven-of-14 shooting in 35 1/2 minutes before fouling out in the final seconds, and Felton had 10 points, eight assists and two steals and played feisty defense in 34 minutes.
“I think it was good,” Austin Rivers said of his play with Felton and guard J.J. Redick. “I think it worked. It’s tough to critique tonight, but we played well for most of the game.”
Felton slipped behind the Minnesota defense after a Timberwolves basket and scored on a fast break with three minutes left in the game and made two nice passes to Jordan for baskets in the third quarter, one of them an alley-oop dunk.
Rivers scored eight of his team’s first 10 points, including a 25-foot three-pointer, in the third quarter to help the Clippers take a 61-50 lead.
“I’ve got to continue to be aggressive — nothing really changes,” Rivers said. “I do what I do. You can’t be anybody else. I can’t be C.P. I’m a different player than him, and he can’t be me. There’s certain things I can do that he can’t do, and there’s a lot of things C.P. does that me or Ray can’t do.
“We have to be ourselves and just play hard. I think effort will outweigh anything. We’re undermanned, so we’ve got to play harder than everybody else. I think if we do that, we’ll be fine.”
3. Jamal Crawford’s shooting slump continued when the veteran guard made just three of 14 shots and scored seven points. Crawford has scored a total of 29 points for a 4.8 average in his last six games, making 12 of 59 shots (20.3%), including one of 16 three-pointers (6.3%).
But Doc Rivers saw a glimmer of hope when Crawford made a difficult one-hand, running shot from 14 feet out as the shot clock expired to give the Clippers a 101-98 lead with 1 minute, 28 seconds left.
“He’s trying to fight his way through it,” Doc Rivers said. “What I did like tonight is he was aggressive. He didn’t make the shots, and I can live with that. He will. You can see him slowly finding his way out of this. You feel for him because you know he works on it every day and it’s gonna come, but it happens. It’s basketball.”
4. Doc Rivers had a good reason for not taking out Jordan when the Timberwolves began intentionally fouling the notoriously poor free-throw shooter with less than four minutes left. The coach needed the big man to cover Towns, who was making shots from all over the floor.
The Clippers had a 93-91 lead with 3:49 left when Minnesota applied the first of four intentional hacks on Jordan, who made four of the eight free throws, the last of which gave the Clippers a 99-98 lead with 2:22 left.
Asked if he considered substituting for Jordan, Rivers said, “No, because they wanted us to. They wanted to match up Mo [Speights] on Towns, so you had to just live with it. That would have been a tough matchup for us.”
5. The Timberwolves are 15-28 this season, but with a budding second-year superstar in Towns and third-year stars in Andrew Wiggins, who scored 27 points Thursday night and is averaging 22 points a game, and Zach LaVine, who is averaging 20 points, they could become very competitive very soon.
“They’re gonna be great, man,” Jordan said. “They’re already a nice young team with a lot of talent. They get up and down the floor, they have a lot of scorers, and [Tom Thibodeau] is a great coach. They’re definitely a team we’re gonna see in the future.”
Jordan is one of the best defenders in the league, but he couldn’t slow Towns.
“He can do a lot of different things out there on the floor,” Jordan said. “He’s a great post-up player, he can face up. He’s picking and popping, so you gotta choose your poison with those guys, especially when they have two of their best players in the pick-and-roll, and they’re attacking downhill and he’s popping.
“It’s tough, but you have to throw different looks at him, contest his shot and make it as tough as possible on him.”