MINNEAPOLIS — The angry, pink-red welt on Greg Stiemsma’s neck burns. You can see it from the upper deck of the Target Center.
Rick Adelman’s blood boils.
Vinny Del Negro sweats.
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The newly unveiled bear tattoo on Nikola Pekovic’s arm draws your eyes and won’t let them go.
Blake Griffin thuds as he hits the floor, all 250 pounds of sinew slamming into hardwood and thus squeezing three more points from the Timberwolves’ doomed effort.
Minnesota knew this would be physical. The players knew it from watching Griffin for the past three seasons, from any tape of the Clippers this season. They’re still something of underdogs, these Clippers, even though they own the third-best winning percentage in the NBA, and they’ve fought tooth-and-nail for where they stand.
Two weeks ago, along with a loss, the Clippers dealt the Timberwolves two injuries, one to Pekovic and the other to Alexey Shved. This time, defeating them 96-90, they taught the Timberwolves a lesson.
It’s time to be a little bit meaner.
This Minnesota team is tough. It’s resilient. Adelman has said that over and over this season, and really, if his players weren’t resilient, they’d have about 10 wins at this point, even if 17 is hardly something to be proud of. But tough, at least against the Clippers, isn’t enough.
“We can be tough, and we can play tougher, tough like that,” J.J. Barea said. “I think that’s something that we have to learn, and stop being too nice.”
With 8:26 remaining in the second quarter and the Timberwolves up 33-25, Greg Stiemsma set a screen on Matt Barnes. If you ask Barnes, Stiemsma laughed, and it was a dirty pick. Stiemsma mentions nothing of the sort. He set another screen, as you’d expect him to do, and suddenly there was a tattooed forearm to a pale neck, a near-punch, a scrum. There was a flagrant foul type 2 on Barnes, and he was gone, ejected, escorted back to the locker room.
Give it less than a minute off the game clock, and they’re back, the Clippers again with the ball on offense. There’s Stiemsma again, colliding into Grant Hill, sending the 40-year-old to the floor. Ask Stiemsma about this one, and he’ll say he didn’t see Hill. You want to believe him — it’s Greg Stiemsma, after all, the furthest thing from a dirty player — but at this point, things become murky. At this point, Ronny Turiaf and Caron Butler are chest-to-chest with Stiemsma, jawing and amped up and ready to do God knows what if it weren’t for the referees and two more technical fouls, one for each Clipper, and a flagrant 1 foul on the Timberwolves center.
“Games like that are always going to be chippy, especially with the team at home,” the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan said. “We kept our cool and turned it up a little bit.”
Maybe they’re “always chippy” for the Clippers, but that’s not the Timberwolves’ game. Or maybe they just define chippy differently. By the Timberwolves’ definition, this loss was more than chippy; it was downright strong-armed. Adelman’s team is too small to be the Clippers’ brand of chippy — save Barea, maybe, who defies the logic of size — and too injured most nights. That’s just not their style; they have the fewest personal fouls in the NBA, just 757. Before Wednesday, they were one of just four teams without a single flagrant foul called on them, and they’re still among the 14 to not have had a player ejected this season.
“I didn’t know he was going to take it that far,” Stiemsma said of Barnes. “That’s why I’m out there, to set screens and be physical, and some guys take it over the top.”
“We wanted to set a tone early and let them know they weren’t going to get things easy, obviously within the legal parameters of the game. We’re not going to back down.”
But back down they did, however inadvertently. After those tense handful of minutes when it seemed like the whole thing might spill over into brawl, the Clippers went on a 25-10 run to end the half with a lead, which they relinquished only briefly in the fourth quarter.
Barnes may have been gone, but the game was the Clippers’ for the taking. They’d shown the Timberwolves just who had control, and once they got themselves settled, they resorted to a very legal brand of physicality. They made Luke Ridnour look every bit the wisp and Dante Cunningham appear nothing short of stubby going up against Jordan. The Clippers were a wall, too tall and too thick, with the solution for the Timberwolves simply to push, push, push to little avail.
“We’re not as big as they are,” Adelman said. “That’s what we talked about at halftime: if you know the guy’s that long, you’re not going to win the jumping contest, so you’re going to have to get your body into the guy and make sure he’s a little bit further away.”
It sounded great in theory, but in practice it never worked. There was just too much of Griffin, too much of Jordan. It was too hard to get a rebound, downright impossible to overpower anyone. Even Pekovic wasn’t going to make a big enough difference.
After the game, Adelman was asked if his team was tough enough. He said he thinks it is, and he may be right. It’s the question that might be flawed, though. This might not be a matter of toughness, but rather of meanness. Is your team mean enough, fierce enough, calculated enough?
That remains to be seen.
By the time he’d retreated to the locker room after the game, Stiemsma could barely see that neck welt. It had faded by the time he sat down to watch the clip of Barnes’ foul and consequent ejection.
The Clippers will probably let this memory recede quickly. Barnes apologized to everyone for losing his control, and it led them to a win, after all, so that’s that, and when you have 34 wins in 47 tries, they all blend together, you’d imagine. For the Timberwolves, it’s a different story. The welt may have disappeared, but you have to know Stiemsma and his teammates won’t forget it.
And really, for them, that’s not a bad thing, no matter how much the game still stings.