Griffin, Paul can’t carry Clippers all alone

LOS ANGELES — While most of the Clippers returned from four days of rest and relaxation, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul returned from the three-day carnival known as All-Star weekend with a cross-country flight from Orlando and a sigh.

Just what they needed: a working vacation.

If that wasn’t grueling enough, the Clippers’ All-Stars arrived home to do some more heavy lifting. But what became apparent in a 109-97 loss Tuesday night to Minnesota is that as they head into a grueling month of March, Griffin and Paul can’t carry the Clippers themselves.

Griffin racked up 30 points, seven rebounds and four assists, and Paul added 27 points and six assists. Yet that did little to prevent the Clippers from looking like the team that wheezed into the All-Star break with several bad habits: a lack of intensity, an absence of scoring help, a poor finishing touch and another loss — their third in four games.

“It was a disappointing effort all around,” said coach Vinny Del Negro, whose Clippers on Thursday begin a stretch in which they play 20 games in 31 days. “I didn’t like our intensity from the get-go.”

With the exception of center DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers got little from their supporting cast.

Caron Butler’s production continued to decline, as he missed 9 of 10 shots, making his only basket late in the fourth quarter. He now has scored 35 points in the past five games. Mo Williams, a reliable scorer off the bench, managed only 8 points on 4-for-12 shooting. Kenyon Martin was scoreless in 16 minutes, and Bobby Simmons, who was signed out of the D-League on Monday, hardly proved to be a revelation, failing to score in 17 minutes.

What teams are beginning to figure out is that with Chauncey Billups gone for the season, there is one less reliable option — and one less trusted hand late in games.

The Clippers are 5-5 without Billups.

“The first thing you have to do is stop all the lobs to take the crowd out of it,” Minnesota rookie forward Derrick Williams said, noting that Griffin and Jordan managed one dunk apiece. “Then you’ve got to make their role players beat you. They have a great starting five. When their role players are hitting, they’re a tough team to beat. Tonight, we got out on their shooters and made them take some tough shots.”

Getting support from role players was no trouble for the Timberwolves, who had sensational efforts off the bench from Williams and veteran Michael Beasley, who played as if he were auditioning for the Lakers, who reportedly have been in trade talks about him. The two forwards had 27 points apiece, each scoring 13 in the fourth quarter when they combined to go 8 for 8 from the field and 7 for 7 from the free-throw line.

J.J. Barea, a free-agent signing who played a crucial role in Dallas’ run to the title last June, so effortlessly ran the second unit that it stayed on the court for nearly 11 minutes in the final quarter. In all, the Timberwolves bench scored 72 points, two shy of a franchise record and the most by an NBA team this season.

That Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, the Timberwolves stars, combined to make 5 of 21 shots turned out not to be a problem at all.

What seemed to eat at Del Negro was not so much the shooting of Williams and Beasley as the lack of determination from his own club.

The Clippers jumped to an early 10-point lead thanks to a dominant start by Griffin, who scored 18 points in the first quarter. Much as Minnesota did last month, when it crawled back from a 12-point, fourth-quarter deficit to stun the Clippers on Love’s 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Timberwolves managed to hang around until the fourth quarter. Then they dominated.

“That’s something we have to learn, to put teams away,” said Paul, whose team blew an early 13-point lead in an overtime loss to San Antonio on Feb. 18.

An easy question to raise is whether the Clippers’ problems can be tied to the absence of Billups, whose cool hand at the end of games erased some mistakes earlier this season. And might his absence, in a trip starting Thursday that takes the Clippers to Sacramento, Phoenix, Houston, Minnesota, New Jersey and San Antonio, necessitate another, bolder move before the March 15 trade deadline?

Del Negro said he hoped the six-game trip, the Clippers’ second-longest, would give them back the edge that they played with earlier this season. They need to play tougher, and they need to play with a bit of anger.

Meanwhile, Paul cautioned against reading too much into one game.

“I’m not panicking,” said Paul, waving off any concerns. “I’d give any of those guys the same shots that they had tonight. Those are some of the best shooters in the league. Any other night, those shots fall and it’s a different game. It’s a long season.”

A long season, indeed. Nobody knows that better than Paul and Griffin.