The first game of the Clippers’ longest road trip this season got off to a dreadful start in Minnesota.
Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups sat again with injuries. No surprise there. But forward Matt Barnes, whose temper is frequently his worst enemy, was ejected in the second quarter for a flagrant 2 foul just 3½ minutes into the second quarter.
The game had the makings of a disaster. So how did the Clippers still squeeze out a 96-90 win over the Timberwolves?
They made big shots near the end of the game, got critical contributions from a variety of sources and played with resolve in the second half despite their missing pieces.
Those are traits of good teams, and although the Clippers have ebbed and flowed this month after a perfect December, they clearly know how to close out a game when they sense it can be done.
They deserve credit for gathering themselves after the loss of Barnes, who was tossed for throwing a vicious forearm near the neck of Timberwolves center Greg Stiemsma, who was setting a screen. But it got worse one minute later when Stiemsma knocked Grant Hill to the floor as Hill was going for a rebound.
Clippers Caron Butler and Ronny Turiaf rushed at Stiemsma and were assessed technical fouls; Stiemsma received a flagrant 1 foul.
After the subsequent free throws, Minnesota held a 38-28 lead. But then the Clippers went on a 36-15 run, taking a 64-53 lead on DeAndre Jordan’s layup on an assist from Eric Bledsoe.
“We lost Matt early, so that kind of hurt us a little bit,” Jordan said. “But we all picked it up a notch.”
There were contributions all around. Bledsoe, starting again in place of Paul, had 10 points, a season-high 10 assists and six steals. Jordan had 16 points and 12 rebounds. Butler scored 19 points. Jamal Crawford had 17.
Blake Griffin finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds, and he made the Clippers’ biggest basket of the night.
With 30 seconds left and the Clippers up by three points, Griffin found himself just inside the free-throw line with nowhere to throw the ball and Jose Barea in his face. He threw up a prayer as he was fouled by Nikola Pekovic and fell to the floor. His foul shot made it a 94-88 game.
It was the only shot Griffin attempted in the final period.
“I couldn’t find anybody,” Griffin told Prime Ticket. “I was actually just imagining in my mind that it was falling down and making it. Thankfully, it went in.”
The game could have spiraled out of control after Barnes was thrown out, and it’s something to remember for the rest of the trip, Griffin said. The Clippers showed their composure to come back and take control, but it makes it more difficult when they’re short-handed.
“We’ve got to understand that there’s something bigger that we’re fighting for,” he said, “and we’ve got to keep our cool and do a better job of that. I was proud of the way everybody responded.”
Their next stop is Toronto on Friday. They have their sights set high.
“It’s good to get the first win,” Jordan said. “You can’t win them all without winning the first one. This gives us some momentum going into Toronto.”